Lodge Yourself on a Stratum (or, For Exodus)


This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times.

I have always loved this passage from A Thousand Plateaus, but I have also chafed a bit at how they want us to spend so much time paying attention to the stratum.  I thought it was just a kind of unreflective pragmatism, an acceptance of the fact that, like it or not, you have to start from where you are.  But Hardt & Negri (Commonwealth) suggest something more positive.  They say that the family, corporation, and the nation are the most important social institutions that capture us presently.  But mostly what these institutions are doing is gathering and mobilizing our common power.  As such, we should pay very careful attention to them, not because they are currently dominant and we have no choice but to work with them, but because they are storehouses of our common power.  As we struggle to leave capitalism and the state and build an alternative common life together, we will have to reappropriate our common power, make it our own again, and turn it toward our own common project.  So it makes sense to know intimately where that common power is currently stored, and how it is being put to use.  Lodge yourself on a stratum.


People Are the Source of All Power


Here is a thought whose recurrence in me today was prompted by Commonwealth.  Hardt & Negri insist on Foucault’s argument that power can only be exercised over free subjects.  That is, the nature of power (i.e. biopower, pouvoir, constituted power) is that it tries to act on the free activity of people, either to repress it or to cause it to flow in particular directions.   The free activity of people–their drive that continues to churn, to create, to assert itself–is primary.  (This is what D&G call desiring-production, and we could call it puissance, or constituent power, or, my favorite, kratos.)  We commonly think of domination as sequentially prior to resistance, that domination is imposed and then a resistance is born.  But that is wrong.  Domination must always impose itself on something, and that something is the ongoing free activity of people.  In that sense, resistance is just the temporary guise that already-existing free activity takes as it continues to churn, to escape whatever controls have been imposed so that it can continue its work, continue to pursue its insistent project of creation.

All this made me think of my post on Far From Heaven, in which we can see people heavily constrained by norms of race, class, gender, and sexuality, who nevertheless continue to churn, to desire, to create.

Set the Prairie Ablaze


I am just revisiting the third in the series, and I expect there will be lots of nice nuggets that present themselves.  Just in the preface:

The standard view…assumes that the only alternative to the private [of the capitalist market] is the public, that is, what is managed and regulated by states and other governmental authorities…

They propose instead a third alternative, the common, which is the affects, information, knowledge, codes, language, and wealth that we produce ourselves, together, in common.  What we must do is to recognize the common, learn what it can do, win it back, and expand its powers.  It is the common we must struggle for, not capitalism or socialism:

The seemingly exclusive alternative between the private and the public corresponds to an equally pernicious political alternative between capitalism and socialism…Socialism and capitalism, however…are both regimes of property that exclude the common.  The political project of instituting the common, which we develop in this book, cuts diagonally across these false alternatives–neither private nor public, neither capitalist nor socialist–and opens a new space for politics.

They want us to focus on and expand our capacities for collective production and self-government, “not only to define an event but also to grasp the spark that will set the prairie ablaze.”

Illuminati: Unrepresentable Citizenship and the City


“Democracy rests under the sign of Janus, the exiled god of thresholds and beginnings, not under Terminus, god of confines and outcomes.”

Augusto Illuminati’s piece from the book Radical Thought in Italy outlines a very similar project to the other Italians: to effect an exodus from capitalism and work, from the State and representation. A politics of escape, flight, exodus, leaving, refusal, secession. This flight cannot be directionless, of course, it must consciously and actively refuse/resist capitalism, or it will be reabsorbed.

So we must interrupt, disrupt, break, make contingent, destabilize the existing order, and we must begin, arise, cross the threshold into the new, the other.

But still, how might this disruption, this destabilization take on some “strategic plasticity,” Illuminati asks, how might we create some thickness, some coherence beyond?  He suggests that we think in terms of rules (as opposed to laws). Rules (of thumb perhaps) that coordinate free activity, rather than laws that govern work.  Rules that are easily modifiable and contestable.  A network of rules that protect the free unfolding of individual and group difference [here I think of GNU General Public Licenses, or the Creative Commons licenses].  Rules that explicitly deny capitalism/work, but that also begin to construct ways to coordinate heterogeneous forms of life beyond capitalism, beyond property relations, beyond the State.  Rules that can help create interfaces for communication between heterogeneous systems.  Experimenting with such rules, such protocols for relating peers in networks, might be thought of, he suggests, as experiments with non-representative democracy, with forms of life that incorporate the general intellect.  Flexible strategies of subjectivization in free associations, rather than formal citizenship in the State.

And, very interestingly, Illuminati proposes that cities are an important site for developing such new forms of life and subjectivity. (On this point he is echoed by Hardt and Negri, who pose something similar in Commonwealth.) We might rescue citizenship from its formal nation-state conception and think of it instead as “living in a city” [the translation is a bit choppy, I assume the original is something like abitare la città]. Here I think he is reimagining the city as the city of feudal escapes, as the city of deserters of institutions, as the Lucca that emblazoned libertas on its towers. And here, he implies, the cities of the global South are especially important, these cities with their massive and unprecedented churn, their whole zones off the grid, their huge amounts of creative activity (potenza) and autoproduction. Living in (these) cities opens up particularly strong possibilities for new subjectivities to emerge, for the invention of new politics outside formal politics, for people to develop new experiments in nonrepresentative democracy.

The Italians never mention Lefebvre, but of course this kind of thinking should cause us to reach immediately for The Urban Revolution (and maybe also The Production of Space), where Lefebvre works through in detail the importance of the city for a life beyond capitalism and the State.

Here we go again: Harvey, Eugene Holland, and OWS

This is modified reblog of a post of mine from another blog I participate in, Nomad Scholarship, which is a collaboration between two theory reading groups, one at the University of Washington and one at Ohio State.  We are trying to engage each other virtually, in writing, around a coordinated set of readings.  It is a new experiment for us–check it out!


OK, I am able to breathe a little easier after reading the Holland piece (an unpublished paper on OWS).  The Harvey chapters (5&7 from Rebel Cities) had me wanting to give up on the left.

The Harvey chapter on Occupy Wall Street is 99% ressentiment. He rails against the powers that be. They are evil, and we must resist. He gives no attention to what we are, what we are capable of, what kind of potentials the 99% has. In the chapter it seems we can only be good by negation, because we are not the 1%, and the 1% is evil. This is precisely the kind of thinking Nietzsche decries in Beyond Good and Evil because, he says, it blinds us to our own powers.

Harvey characterizes people in Occupy as gathering together to talk about…the powers that be, about what the 1% is doing and how we can oppose them (p. 161). He says those that gathered wanted their opinions heard and their needs attended to (p. 162). He entirely misses the unique power of the movement: in Egypt, in Spain, in Greece, and also in NYC. The key was that people gathered not only to speak to, make demands on, and oppose the 1% (many did, to be sure), they also gathered to encounter each other.  Holland does well to emphasize the ways participants made real an alternative democratic society, though food provision, libraries, and general assemblies. So many participants did not come to make demands on the liberal-democratic state, because they knew, as Holland puts it, that the system was hopelessly corrupt (or, as the Spanish put it, que se vayan todos, (echoing the Argentinians ten years before)). So many came instead to ask each other what alternative they wanted to begin building together. The Greeks said this loud and clear in the First Declaration of the assembly in Syntagma:

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.

I guess we can’t give Holland too much credit for stressing this.  It was crystal clear and hard to miss.  How Harvey fails to see it is a mystery.  Ostrich-like.

But the thing I like most about the Holland is what I think D&G are particularly vital for now, what H&N pick up to a degree and what Virno’s idea of exodus gets at very well: that we absolutely must turn toward ourselves now.  We must wean ourselves from our obsession with the apparatuses of capture and their endless power to contain us.  We must leave off rubbing ourselves raw against the bars of our cage.  We must begin paying far more attention to what we can do, to the kinds of worlds we can make on our own, that we are already making on our own.  We must withdraw from capitalism, from the state, in a thoughtful and critical manner (lodge yourself on the strata, learn them, and then experiment with escapes), and we must, at the same time, begin-and-continue building the other worlds we want instead.  These other worlds must spread by contagion, as in Holland, or as I like to say, with Spinoza and Calvino, they must grow and spread according to their own internal drives.  Withdraw-and-create; exodus-and-invention.  Importantly, and true to D&G, I think, Holland hopes for a tipping point beyond which capital and the state begin to wither away because they are no longer necessary.  I share this hope, and I am currently trying to argue that this vision is something D&G offer that Ranciere doesn’t, despite the many strengths of the latter.

Speaking of spreading, though, I would push back on Holland on at least one point that I think is not insignificant.  He implies in several places that OWS was somehow a starting point from which similar movements spread.  That is true within the States perhaps, but I think it is important to remember that OWS was a very late comer in a wave of such democratic desire that washed across the world.  Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries; Greece and Spain; Israel; Chile; all were at a full boil while NYC looked on.  The Spanish (May) had been loudly pleading with the US for months to join their revolution when OWS finally got off the ground (September).  I remember thinking, that September, that finally something had begun in the US (though I wrongly expected it not to amount to anything).  It is very important not to narrate the Greeks, Spanish, Egyptians, Tunisians, etc. into the background.  They were the first, the loudest, the most creative, and the best.  They faced the more dire political and economic situations.  They deserve pride of place in the narrative about the democratic uprisings of 2010 and ff.  OWS should be celebrated energetically, but it should also, to an extent, always stand humbly in the shadow of the other extraordinary movements that came first.  Sometimes America is last and least.

David Harvey: lazy, slow-moving

This handout picture from the Venezuelan


Add David Harvey (in Rebel Cities) to my list (which is short and not really very actively maintained) of old-timey radicals who think the state should remain part of our political vision. Harvey admits (p. 153) there is “immense contemporary skepticism” about the state, but he never reveals that this skepticism is largely a reaction to the totalitarian horrors of China and the Soviet Union (and Cuba). He seems to think (p. 124) that the failures of actually existing socialism were economic (they couldn’t compete against the capitalist economies) rather than political (they brutalized their populations). Having missed that glaring problem (how?!), he is unconcerned about the dangers of a future socialist or communist state entity: “mechanisms can surely be devised to prevent dictatorship or authoritarianism” (p. 152). My God. Really? Unlike the line that runs from Bakunin through Nietzsche through Lefebvre/D&G and on into the Italians, he just seems to be entirely blind to the massive dangers of state rule. And his argument for the state is feeble. He does a brief flyby of Iris Marion Young’s worry that without an overarching entity to prevent it, inequalities could develop among localized autonomous communities. From this important concern he concludes unthinkingly that “the only way to avoid such outcomes [inter-locality inequality] is for some higher authority to both mandate and enforce” redistribution (p. 152, my emphasis). It is the same old lazy argument: we have to have a state because without the state there would be some problems. At least Hobbes had a compelling blackmail (bellum omnium contra omnes). Harvey just gives a shrug and tells us the state “cannot be avoided” (p. 153). But of course it can: we just have to move a bit quicker than Harvey does.

Obviously this is an issue worthy of careful thinking, and we should not fall into an unhelpful anti-state dogmatism that rejects all political efforts that are in any way associated with the state. Obviously we should experiment with state-like structures, form organizations and institutions, try them out, strive to make them as democratic and horizontal as we can. But what we don’t need is Harvey’s lazy acceptance of the state. We must always remember our Bakunin, and always pay very careful attention to what political life was like under Stalin and the CCP (and Castro, and Chavez for that matter).  If we choose to work with the state, we should do so wearing HAZMAT gear.  Even as we form state-like structures, we must never settle down in them. We have to make sure we never lose our itch to flee.

Nomad Democracy, or, Eugene Holland and Me

D&G's nomad chariot

It is quite a thing to run across someone who seems eerily connected to you in terms of their intellectual project.  That is the experience I had reading Andy Merrifield’s Magical Marxism, and I just had it again reading Eugene Holland’s Nomad Citizenship.  I tend to think in terms of the concept democracy, and Holland prefers citizenship, communism, markets, and general strike, but our overall projects are quite close.  We both draw on a similar stable of thinkers (Deleuze and Guattari, the Italians, the Invisible Committee, Marx) to imagine a politics that does not confront the state and capital, but rather seeks out the alternative forms of economic, political, and social life that are already being tried.  Our job (‘our’ meaning everyone) is not to create those new forms, or organize people and cause them to live those new forms, but to learn to recognize new forms as they exist now and figure out how to help them grow on their own terms and spread by connecting with other, similar initiatives.  I just tried to articulate this idea in a response to a comment made by Nik Janos on my post on Bakunin.  The idea is that these alternative forms of life must survive, grow, and, eventually, come to pervade society, to reach a critical mass, as Holland puts it, to become-general so that we arrive at a bifurcation point after which we spill over into a new land, one that is thick with the presence of democracy (for me, or free-market communism, for Holland).  It is not really a question of wanting to smash the state or capitalism, it is rather a question of “growing” democracy to a point where those oligarchical forms of rule appear quaint and no longer relevant to the needs of our lives.  Holland puts it like this (p. 163): we have to “produce a gradual but irreversible, and ultimately definitive, becoming-unnecessary of our abject dependence on both capital and the State….”  I would just soften his “irreversible” and “definitive” language: we must always understand that even if we reach the tipping point, even if we create a new land, capitalist and State alienation will always return, always re-emerge and seek to reimpose themselves on us.  We must understand the new land to be made up of our perpetual flight from these apparatuses.  Their defeat is possible, but it can never be irreversible.

To be clear, I don’t mean to imply I am at the same level as Merrifield and Holland, just that we are trying to articulate a very similar project.

[Holland and I also share an affinity for Richard Day’s work, but don’t like his penchant for ruling out forms of struggle once and for all, considering them “dead” or passe.  I have an exchange with Day on this point coming out soon in ACME].

Democratic Institutions II

MultitudeIn Commonwealth, Hardt & Negri set out a difference between 1) revolution/insurrection as the moment of emancipation by which the older order is upended and 2) transition/transformation through which the multitude is liberated.  In insurrection the multitude rises and becomes active, but in transition they must sustain that activity and transform their capacity for democracy into an ability to rule themselves.  This latter effort, H&N say, requires the process of creating institutions.  The multitude must create those institutions in such a way as to avoid “the danger of ineffectiveness and disorder” on the one hand, and “that of hierarchy and authority on the other.”  They are not specific on how to do this, but they tell us to focus on “the capacities that people already exercise,” which is to say the “horizontal networks of communication and cooperation” that already, they argue, “tend toward the autonomous production of the common.”  Of course that autonomy is currently prevented by capitalist social relations, but as those are removed, the project would be to help flourish this autonomous production that already exists and has its own power.  Transition, then, or what they call the “becoming-Prince of the multitude,” involves some ongoing mixture of insurrection and institutional struggle.  They only sketch the tracery of a pattern of this becoming-Prince, but again the question is raised: how can we both create new democratic institutions for a society to come and still refuse to accept relations of hierarchy, oligarchy, and heteronomy as inimical to democracy?