Democracy without the State

Below is the text of the talk I just gave at the Policy & Politics conference in Bristol (England). As you can see, I was very conscious of the audience, which I was not quite sure I had a handle on, but which turned out, I think, to be a group of people who think a lot about government and policy, but do so very critically and intelligently. So my message, that we need to get serious about thinking democracy without the State, was in a sense a message “from beyond,” but one they were able to hear and engage with, even if they did not fully accept it. Also important to know is that the theme of the conference was “Democracy, Inequality, and Power.”

[The paragraphs in brackets were part of the talk, but they were offered as asides. Those with a “***SKIP***” tag were in fact left out.]



When you find yourself on a list of plenary speakers like this one, in which all the others have really deep track records of academic achievement, you ask yourself what the heck you are doing here and what you can contribute. I don’t have their record, I am not a social scientist, I don’t study inequality, I am not even British.

I guess what I am is someone who has thought about and written some on democracy, on the idea and practices of democracy. So I thought what I would do today is offer a contribution along those lines. What I plan to do, we’ll see how it goes, is to introduce into the conference what I anticipate will be a minor current of thought. My idea is that this minor current will haunt the discussions we have over the next two days, haunt them in what I hope is a productive way, a way that is sympathetic to the tenor of thinking at the conference, but that raises critical questions of that thinking, and thereby stimulates new (and maybe even better) currents of thought.

I have structured my contribution in the form of two claims:

The first claim is that the best way to understand the two terms “democracy” and “the State” is in a way that makes them mostly antithetical to each other, as political operations that move us in opposite directions.

The second claim is that in this time of troubles, in which the political and economic powers that be have driven us into the crash of 2007-8, and then doubled down on their failed model by imposing austerity in both the metropolis and the hinterlands, what we need, what can save us, is democracy. We need to focus our energies on the project of becoming democratic, the project of retaining our own power and learning to use it to govern ourselves.

Becoming democratic involves the positive act of learning to use our own power, but it also involves a negative act: we must refuse to surrender our power to entities outside of and above ourselves. The quintessence of such entities is the State, but of course multinational corporations, international institutions (UN, World Bank, the Troika, etc.), churches, and trade unions fit the bill as well.

Taken together, these claims will have a tense relationship with those who advocate more robust government policy designed to redress the worsening socio-economic inequality in our world today. While it is likely that option would result in greater equality, I argue that it would vitiate the project of becoming democratic. To be sure, a robust welfare State is without a doubt preferable to the neoliberal alternative, which offers neither equality nor democracy. But I want to insist that we are capable of more than the welfare State. We are capable of democracy.

Democracy can be much more than we think

What do I mean, democracy? Democracy, as I am about to conceive it, is a mode of life in which people struggle to reclaim their power and learn to use that power to manage their affairs for themselves. If you’ll indulge me, I’ll explain what I mean by way of an etymology.

Democracy is made up of demos and kratia.

We think we know very well what demos means, but in ancient Greece, by which I mean the Greece in which Plato and Aristotle fashioned their political theory, demos typically referred only to the poor, to those who had to work for a living. The demos were always more numerous than the rich, but they never encompassed the whole population. They were always the largest faction, but they were a faction all the same. For Plato and Aristotle, then, democracy referred to a system of government in which that larger faction controlled the affairs of the polis. In the modern era, of course, and this is readily apparent in Hobbes, demos has come to mean everyone, all persons without qualification. And so we are in the habit of thinking of democracy as a political system in which everyone rules.

The second part of the word, kratia, is perhaps a bit more complex. We typically use words like “rule” or “govern” to represent it in English, as I just did, and so we are in the habit of thinking that kratia signifies the power of one entity over another. And kratia does in fact have those connotations, both in the way it was used in Plato and Aristotle’s Greece, and in the meaning of our own words that bear its imprint (like aristocracy, bureaucracy, meritocracy, etc.). Kratia in this sense refers to a power that controls, that limits, even a power that dominates.1 And in fact this word, kratia, is the most direct point of contact with Greek for our word “democracy”: the ending “-cracy” is most closely connected to kratia. But kratia‘s own etymology can be traced deeper, if we choose to, to another, more basic, word: kratos. Kratos means something less specific: it refers to strength or power or might. Those who are partial to Spinoza, and Nietzsche after him, will see the opportunity here: we can understand kratos to mean the power humans have to act into the world, their capacity to affect the world around them in some tangible way. In this sense, kratos takes on a meaning more like “power to,” which is to say humans’ power to create something new, to invent, to produce changes in our world.2 And so if we return to the first word, kratia, we can reappropriate its meaning. While it does bear the meaning of “power over,” it also evokes, from down deep in its roots, the idea of “power to,” the idea of our human capacity to act into and change our world.

And so this line of thinking offers us the opportunity to understand democracy as a condition in which demos and kratia are bound together, in which all people without qualification (demos) retain their power to act into and change the world (kratia), and they use that power to manage their affairs for themselves.

[I don’t mean to give the impression that I think my etymology of kratia has revealed its true meaning, and that we have been getting it wrong for all these years. Rather I am saying that kratia contains both ideas, that each is very much present in the word’s origins. And so, we can choose, if we wish, to emphasize kratia‘s meaning of “power to” rather than its meaning of “power over.”]

The State Is What Hobbes Said It Is

The founding operation of the modern State is to move precisely in the opposite direction from democracy as I have just described it. To make that argument, again begging your patience, I need to talk about Hobbes.

Hobbes argued passionately that we need a State, because only the State can save us from ourselves. Without the State, living in what he called the state of nature (which is to say the condition of being outside of State society), we are in a condition of total war. This war is a bellum omnium contra omnes, a war of each person against all other persons.

This war exists because in the state of nature each person has the natural right, the right of nature, to use his or her own power to ensure his or her own survival. There are no codes, moral or legal, that govern the use of that power. Therefore, Hobbes argues, there is nothing at all to prevent one person from harming any another, even to the point of killing them, if he or she thinks it will help them survive. And so the condition of war exists precisely because in the state of nature each of us retains our own power and has the right to use it as we see fit. The solution to this intolerable condition, therefore, is for us to surrender our power. To what? Not to another person or persons, since persons having power is precisely the problem. We surrender our power to an artificial person, a made-up entity, the modern State. The specific function of the State is to be other than, or outside of, ourselves. We cede our power to this artificial person that is other than ourselves in order to keep us apart from our own power, to alienate us from it. [Marx’s word for alienation is instructive here: entfremdung = to make strange something that is now familiar.] This alienation is the whole point: us having our power is what endangers us, and so we must be separated from our power in order to keep us safe. And so Hobbes makes crystal clear that the founding act of the State is to separate people from their power.

[This context is ideal for understanding Nietzsche’s claim that the State is the coldest of cold monsters: it is a cold monster, an artificial person, by design.]

In addition to this alienation, there is another critical element to this relation between natural persons and the artificial one: the artificial person is not only separate from us, it also transcends us. It is above us; it has power over us. It is, in a word, sovereign. Non est potestas Super Terram quae Comparetur ei.


There is no power on Earth that compares to it. It is a mortal God. It must be so. If its power is not ultimate, if its power is not raised above all other powers, then any natural person (or group of natural persons) can reassert their own power, retake matters into their own hands, reassert their right of nature to do whatever they must to survive. But of course this would be disaster for Hobbes: people having their power is precisely the cause of the bellum. So State power must be above all other powers. That is why we speak of the capital-S State, and its capital-L Law. It gets a capital letter because it is at the head, it comes first, it is above all other powers on Earth.

[***SKIP***It doesn’t hurt, Hobbes thinks, that this power is not only sovereign by contract (and therefore by right), but also that this collected power is so terrifying that it is able to “overawe them all,” just in case anyone takes it into their head to reassert their natural right to their own power.]

It is important to remember that Hobbes is very careful to ascribe to us the decision to alienate our power to an authority outside of and above us: we make these moves ourselves, voluntarily, by making contracts with each other. He says we do this because our reason tells us that the State is our only option, the only thing that will save us from total war.

There are many extraordinary things going on in Hobbes. I have talked about how he establishing the seminal argument for the modern State. But another extraordinary thing that is taking place here is that he is establishing the modern State in the ground of a new, modern idea: the idea that originally people are equal and sovereign over themselves. All of early-modern political thought—especially Locke and Rousseau—adopts this assumption uncritically, and it quickly becomes an axiom of thought, despite the fact that it was rarely held either by the ancients or by those in the Middle Ages. Even if the principle aim of these modern thinkers was to get us to abandon this sovereignty, even so it is there, in their work, described in great detail, this “natural” or original condition in which we are a multitude of persons who retain our own power and use it to manage our affairs for ourselves. Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau are arguing, in other words, that our original condition is democracy, and that the purpose of the modern State is to move us out of our original democratic condition.

[Those familiar with Jacques Ranciere’s work will recognize that he has been arguing something similar, although he situates the discussion in the Greek polis of Plato and Aristotle. Ranciere reads those thinkers as similarly engaged in a concerted effort to build a legitimate political order that can capture and control our original condition of democracy, which for Ranciere is a condition of equality in which anyone at all is qualified to speak and to participate in politics.].

I have been focusing my attention squarely on Hobbes because he offers the most clear-eyed and honest argument for the modern State. At the same time, I am conscious of the common objection that what the modern State actually became is not Hobbes’ absolutist State, but Locke’s more limited, liberal State . This is true, at least in countries with so-called ‘liberal-democratic’ governments. But the difference between the two thinkers—Hobbes’ State of absolute authority and Locke’s State of limited authority—should not cause us to miss what they share. In both thinkers, the nature of the political operation involved in founding the State is precisely the same: people surrender (some measure of) the power they have in the state of nature to an invented entity outside of and above themselves. Even though Locke grants the legislative only limited powers (which are to judge and enforce the Law of Nature), he nevertheless insists that the legislative must be sovereign within those limits, that people must surrender their original power to carry out those functions for themselves. [***SKIP***In Locke, interestingly, there is a double alienation, first of the power of each of us to a body politic, and then of the power of the body politic to the legislative.]

[It is worth saying that precisely this same dynamic exists in Rousseau as well: people surrender every last bit of their power to what he calls the “body politic.” Here there is a new wrinkle, which is that Rousseau imagines the body politic to be made of the whole of the people themselves, rather than an artificial person, as in Hobbes, or a part of the whole, as in Locke’s legislative. But only a little reflection reveals that Rousseau’s body politic is no less an artificial entity, because all persons are not, in fact, part of one body. The body politic is just as invented an idea as Hobbes’ artificial person. In Rousseau the power of each of us is alienated no less fully than it is in Hobbes, to an entity no less outside ourselves, and that entity is no less sovereign over us.]

Again, though Hobbes formulates it with greater clarity, all of the political thinkers who articulated the logic of the modern State agreed that it is founded on the same political operation: people surrender their power to an entity that is separate from and sovereign over them.

The liberal-democratic State is not democracy

And so this line of thinking leads us to conclude, with clear eyes, that the State is not and can never be the same thing as democracy. The State works in the opposite direction from democracy.

And yet, we are constantly conflating the two:

“Egypt is making the transition to democracy…”

“We live in a democracy…”

“Inequality is in danger of producing a divided democracy…”

Those of us who live in a national society ruled by a liberal-democratic government will commonly say we live in “a democracy.” We regularly conflate the liberal-democratic State with “democracy.” But our liberal-democratic State, because it is a State, operates to transfer power from people to an entity separate from them, and that entity is given the sovereign authority to make laws that people must obey. The liberal-democratic State, therefore, just like all States, works in the direction of oligarchy rather than democracy: it is a regime that alienates the power of the many and transfers it to a few.

Of course the existence of elections, in which people are enjoined to participate in the selection of (some of) those who will represent them in the State,3 does mean that those representatives are weakly accountable to people. This does introduce something that resembles a democratic element into the State relation, in the sense that the power of the representatives is not entirely disconnected from the wills of people. But this democratic element only asks people to decide who their power will be surrendered to; it does not ask them if they want to surrender it. It assumes they want to surrender it. Elections therefore renew and reaffirm the contract by which people surrender their power to the State. People participate directly and willingly in the transfer of their power to the few, and that participation strongly legitimates the oligarchical relation that the State institutes.

With respect to the question of (in)equality, the form of the liberal-democratic State we typically think of first is the Keynesian Welfare State. Certainly not all welfare States are the same, nor are all Keynesian policy regimes the same. But to the extent they imagine a role for the State in analyzing the problem of inequality, in devising redistributive solutions, and in implementing those solutions…and to the extent they assume that the State acts on behalf of the people in this way, these political regimes work us away from democracy, away from the active management of our affairs for ourselves.

Not democracy, but becoming democratic

If even the liberal-democratic State, and even in its Welfare-State form, moves us away from democracy, if winning elections, changing policy, and introducing new Laws are all working in the wrong direction, what then should we do instead?

Maybe we could just “go back.” Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau all thought that we were originally democratic, before we surrendered our power to the State. Maybe then it is just a matter of sloughing off the State, of voiding the contract in order to return to our original democratic condition?

I wish it were that easy. But democracy isn’t an original condition to which we can return. It is, instead, a joyous and difficult project to remake our future. It is a project that can never be finished. It is not a state of being in which we are at last reunited with our primordeal power, and all of our problems are resolved. It is instead an open-ended project, one that is best conceived of as a struggle to become democratic. We must constantly renew our determination to retain our power, and constantly refuse the temptation to let someone or something else manage our affairs for us. And we must constantly learn how to use that power more effectively. Moreover, we have to figure out how to do all this together: democracy is always necessarily a collective project, and as such we must always be deciding what democratic community means, and how we can best realize it.

Becoming democratic is a difficult project because it requires effort and commitment to do things for ourselves. But it is joyous project too, because it connects us to our power to act into the world, our power to produce new ways of living together. It offers nothing less than the prospect of revivifying us as political beings.


I am sure that over the next two days we will hear in detail about how the current era is creating massive disparities in income, opportunity, and well-being. Inequality, and in particular the kind of inequality we face today, is a vital question that we must address. But I want to urge us to remember that it matters entirely how we address this question. My plea is for us to aspire to more than ceding our power to the State and letting it handle the problem of inequality, that we aspire instead to become democratic, to increasingly retain and learn to use our own power ourselves.

You are perhaps feeling at least a little uneasy: without the State how will anything get done? We can’t possibly do all this ourselves! More specifically and urgently, in an era of neoliberal austerity, how we be able to stem the rapid growth of inequality, and even redress it, without the State?

It is an understandable feeling. As I have said, refusing the State will not magically produce a functioning democratic society that will be immediately capable of permanently resolving the question of equality. However, if we do refuse the State, and we do take up the challenge of becoming democratic, I want to reassure you that part of what that project will entail is people using their power to decide together what equality means for them, and what amount and kind of equality is right for their society. We don’t have to think of equality as an outcome achieved for us by a power outside of and above us, we can think of equality instead as an ongoing concern of our always developing democratic practice.


If this shift, from relying on the State to relying on ourselves, still strikes you as a reckless leap into the void, as abandoning solid ground for the smooth sea, perhaps the best thing I can do is to remind you that even though we live under a State that separates us from our own power, we do not lack experience with becoming democratic. In fact, we have been working away at it for a very long time.


On this slide I have indicated just a few instances that are particularly compelling to me, but of course this is only a drop in the ocean of our democratic experience.

I have indicated three (among infinitely many) clumps of democratic experience, all of which I am happy to reshuffle and rethink:

In the blue clump is Labor, in which a particular group of people, workers, struggle to manage for themselves a particular set of affairs, economic production.

In the green clump is Community/neighborhood, in which members of whatever community—these can be physical or virtual—struggle to manage for themselves the affairs that matter to the community.

In the red clump is Popular Protest/Assembly, in which all sorts of people, on urban, national, or global scales, gather to voice indignation at the current state of affairs, and also to take up the project of building another world themselves.

None of these should be taken as the model case. All of them were partial; all of them had failings. They should instead be taken as clear evidence that we desire to become democratic, and that in fact our desire is not all that rare. Moreover, we act on that desire, we engage in an active struggle to become democratic. At times our struggle produces particularly strong blooms that reach the surface and present themselves to our consciousness. At other times the struggle works away quietly, unseen, in small, everyday contexts that only matter to small groups of people. Either way it is there. We are at work. In each of the cases on the screen, people who participated achieved significant growth, they discovered new capacities, both personal and collective, they debated and implemented ideas of equality, and they learned and practiced new techniques of communication and organization. All of it was achieved by people themselves. Nothing was perfected, but that does not mean nothing was accomplished. It is vital to pay very close attention to these experiences. They are a wide and deep common pool of resources that we can draw from in our ongoing struggle to become democratic.


We are sick, it is true. But it isn’t really inequality that is making us sick. What is making us sick is our alienation from our own political activity, our own power to decide and to act into to world. What we need, first and foremost, is to commit to becoming democratic, to taking up the challenge of deciding together what we want the world to be, and the challenge of bringing that world into being.

1It is a power that Spinoza calls potestas, Deleuze and Guattari call pouvoir, and Hardt and Negri call constituted power.

2This is what Spinoza calls potentia, Deleuze and Guattari call puissance, and Hardt and Negri call constituent power.

3This is described by Hobbes as natural persons “personating” the artificial person.


Special Issue on Ranciere


Just out: a new special issue of Space & Polity on the thought of Jacques Ranciere and how it might be useful for political action today. I edited the special issue, which includes articles by:

Erik Swyngedouw:
Where is the political? Insurgent mobilisations and the incipient “return of the political”

Mark Davidson and Kurt Iveson:
Occupations, mediations, subjectifications: fabricating politics

Paul Hanson:
Cleveland’s Hough riots of 1966: ghettoisation and egalitarian (re)inscription

Mark Purcell:
Rancière and revolution

Kate Booth and Stewart Williams:
A more-than-human political moment (and other natural catastrophes)

You can find more information, and abstracts, here.

My introduction to the special issue is available free to the first 50 people who ask for it, which you can do here. My long article, “Ranciere and Revolution,” argues that we need to augment Ranciere with Deleuze and Guattari’s political thought. It is available as well, though I can’t find a reprint link in my Taylor and Francis account, so you can just e-mail me to get that one.

Democratic Keynesianism? Bullshit.


It may be healthy sign, in the midst of the left’s active search for a way forward in the wake of the failures of State socialism, that all sorts of ideas are being bandied about. Perhaps the most uninspired are the calls (I feel like they are increasingly frequent these days) to just return uncritically to what we had right before neoliberalism: a big central State apparatus that intervenes actively to stabilize capitalism by redistributing some wealth to the working class.

In this case, it is offered (in The Nation!) as a solution to the troubles that have emerged in many places after the Arab spring. This article is just another variant of the unapologetically paternalistic idea that what the Arabs need is to be more like the West, to grow up and become an adult like the US and Britain, etc. With respect to democracy, this idea holds that the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, etc. were chaos, unrest, confusion, and what is required after such events is the famous “transition to democracy,” which is to say a transition to a stable liberal-democratic State regime, precisely like the ones we have in the West (The New York Times is the worst offender here).

This idea badly misconceives of democracy as a stable State regime, when in fact a democratic State is a contradiction in terms, as Marx is at pains to argue (in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right). Democracy is not a stable State regime. Democracy is the uprising itself, it is the disruption of the ruling order (as Ranciere would have it), and, more, it is people themselves, in the caesura created by that disruption, discovering together what they are capable of, how they might live together differently, how they might govern their afffairs for themselves. Democracy is not the liberal-democratic State. And it is certainly not Keynesianism. When the two are elided, as they so often are, we have to call bullshit. And we have to reaffirm the very, very long tradition of democratic thought that sees democracy more clearly, as people themselves managing their own affairs together.

Stop Being a Social Being


The human is a social animal, and the social is evil.  We cannot do anything about it, and yet we cannot accept it if we do not want to lose our souls.  Life can thus be nothing but laceration.  The world is uninhabitable.  And therefore we must escape to the other.  But the door is closed.  How long must we knock before it opens!  In order truly to enter, not to remain on the threshold, one must stop being a social being.

–Simone Weil, Cahiers, 1974

This quote opens Augusto Illuminati’s piece in Radical Thought in Italy.  Lots of echoes of Ranciere here, in the sense that she understands the social to be something like his partage du sensible, a social order that channels and constrains us.  Where she may part company with Ranciere is in the part at the end where she seems open to the possibility of crossing over into a new land…

Democracy, David Foster Wallace, and Me

Below is the (modified) text of the paper I just gave at the Political Geography Pre-Conference before the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers.  It is drawn from my recent book (out any day now (sigh, Wiley is dropping the ball)).  It  is the first time I have talked publicly about Wallace in my work.


Democracy and the Literary Machine, or, David Foster Wallace and Me


In the last couple of years I have been writing about democracy. What I was doing, in retrospect, was trying to engage with a range of different writers-and-thinkers and to draw out the democratic flows in their work, and then to stream those flows together into my “own,” augmented, democratic flow.

I thought that the writers I should be engaging with, the writers that were appropriate to such a project, were political theorists: people like Lefebvre, Deleuze & Guattari, Hardt & Negri, Rancière, Laclau & Mouffe….I didn’t imagine that literary of fiction writers should be a part of group of writers-and-thinkers I was engaging with.

But I was reading David Foster Wallace as I was writing, and he insisted on being included.

And so I was forced to begin thinking about how literature and fiction can play a role in political thought.

Deleuze and Guattari argue that:

reading a text is never a scholarly exercise in search of what is signified, still less a highly textual exercise in search of a signifier. Rather it is a productive use of the literary machine, a montage of desiring-machines, a schizoid exercise that extracts from the text its revolutionary force (Anti-Oedipus, p. 106).

I began to think, increasingly, that the “literary machine” is just anything that has been written and is being read. As I was reading and writing, it became clear that it was all making its way into my thinking: political theory, literature…and blogs, and journalism in magazines you’ve never heard of, and Twitter, and Facebook…I was discovering this revolutionary force in all of them.

One thing D&G don’t have quite right, though: it is not so much that you have to extract that force from the text, or at least it wasn’t for me, and especially with Wallace. It is more that this force presents itself to you. The desiring-machines in these texts “continue to make a hellish racket.” They insist. They stream their flows into your flow without you planning for it to happen. It is accidental, aleatory, emergent, what Badiou calls an event.

So this isn’t so much a rigorous exploration of method for the use of literature in political theory. It is more a story about how I actually did it. But maybe in presenting an account of how I actually used literature, I am making an argument for a particular way to approach it. Maybe my experience could be an example for others to follow. I guess that will depend on what you think of it.

So let me tell you about David and me.


As I said, I was writing about democracy. I understand democracy to mean this: a life in which we manage our affairs for ourselves, together. Directly manage our affairs, not manage them indirectly through intermediaries like the liberal-democratic state or unions or parties or banks. These entities are oligarchies, not democracies.  They are systems in which a few are set aside to rule the rest.  Democracy means something more, it means what Spinoza called “absolute democracy,” where everyone rules everyone, or, as I said, everyone manages their collective affairs together.

That idea may seem a bit too radical. Everyone managing everything together. Exhausting.  That’s why I came to believe that we need to think of democracy with Lefebvre (in State, Space, World especially). We should think of it not as an end state we expect to reach, not as a stable society called democracy.  Instead we should think of it as a movement toward a horizon, as a perpetual struggle, as a lifelong project of becoming-democratic.

So…a lifelong struggle. OK. But this conception of immediately raised the question of activity, of activation, of a necessary co-project to become active, awake, alive. And so the question of how we can do this, of how can we become active, came to pose itself as a central question for my way of thinking about democracy.

I needed help, and Lefebvre offered little.  His analysis of people becoming active leaves much to be desired.

Deleuze and Guattari (in Anti-Oedipus) were of some use here because they offer a negative insight: they say that we have within ourselves the desire to be inactive, to be ruled, to become oligarchic, the desire to let somebody else do it, the desire to be passive rather than active…this is what Foucault, in the introduction to Anti-Oedipus, calls “the fascism in us all.”

Rancière was useful too, because he makes an opposite point: he insists that when we encounter people who appear passive, we should learn to see the activity that is actually there. He talks in particular about spectators, about those watching the spectacle. He says they are not merely passive recipients of stimuli, rather they are people who are actively processing what they are seeing, and they are engaging with each other to make sense of it.

And so I learned that in thinking about becoming active, we should be attentive to both these insights: we want to be ruled and we want to actively rule ourselves.

Wallace, at last

Someone who combines both these insights relentlessly across both his fiction and non-fiction is David Foster Wallace. His work, and in particular Infinite Jest, is obsessed with the question of how we can become active and manage our own affairs for ourselves.  In the book he explores this question in the context of two different scenarios: “the entertainment” and drug addiction. “The entertainment” is a film that is so stimulating to the pleasure centers of the brain that people are literally unable to turn their eyes away. They die of starvation or dehydration, or if they are cared for they live in a catatonic state. Drug addiction is more mundane, but no less a struggle for survival. In both cases, failure to become active and take control of one’s own affairs will result in death.

[here I read a passage from The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy]

One of the heroes of the book, Don Gately, is addicted to painkillers. In a pivotal scene, he has been badly injured and is lying in a hospital bed in excruciating pain. But he can’t take any sort of narcotic. He has no choice but to lie there and “abide,” to be in pain. The struggle goes on and on in the book, for pages. Wallace describes Gately’s every thought, and he specifies Gately’s pain in great detail. The reader gets to the point of hoping Gately will give in and take the painkillers. We can’t see why he would put himself through so much suffering, why he struggles so heroically against the substance.

The answer becomes clear in the last scene of the book. In his hospital bed Gately relives in his memory what we presume to be his precipitating event, the experience that got him to seek help. It is the most gruesome of scenes, reminiscent of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Gately is getting high with a friend, Fax, in an empty apartment. Fax has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from a drug dealer and used it to buy a massive amount of drugs, intending to start his own distribution scheme in another city. But the drug dealer finds out about the theft, and the scheme falls apart. Instead of fleeing, Fax gives in; he goes to the apartment he and Gately are squatting and begins to shoot up. Gately discovers him slumped in a corner of the living room, where he has been for days., Gately joins him in getting high, telling himself he is only keeping his friend company. They stay that way for days, still there in the “little corner, belts around their arms, arms and noses red from scratching, still at it, the ingestion, on a hell of a tear, cooking up and getting off and eating M&M’s when they could find their mouths with their hands, moving like men deep underwater, heads wobbling on strengthless necks, the empty room’s ceiling sky-blue and bulging…” (1996, pp. 934-935).

Gately and Fax continue on, not moving, getting high, hardly able to speak, with the TV on in the background, always on. They begin to wet their pants and just sit there watching the puddles of urine spread, occasionally rolling an M&M in the puddle to watch the dye corrode. At some point Gately tries to stand, but he crashes back down to the floor. Eventually, associates of the drug dealer Fax stole from arrive at the apartment. They are a whole entourage. They don’t merely kill Fax for his betrayal. They begin to have a party, drinking bourbon, everybody with their own personal bottle of Jack Daniels. They force Gately and Fax to drink with them, to join their party. Gately and Fax are so high that they have to be helped to find their mouths with the bottle. At one point the leader of the crew whispers in Gately’s ear that he knows Gately was not involved in the theft. They aren’t going to kill Gately, he says, and so all he needs to do is kick back and watch, to enjoy the party and let Fax face his own music. The leader puts on a CD of Paul McCartney’s band Wings from which all the tracks have been removed except Linda McCartney singing backup and playing tambourine. Everybody else starts shooting up. So that Fax can feel pain, they inject him with a drug to counteract the effect of the pain-killers he has been taking. Then they sew his eyelids open with needle and thread and begin dropping liquid acid into his eyes. While this is happening, they inject Gately with a pharmaceutical-grade painkiller to render him helpless. As Gately slides into unconsciousness, he watches Fax’s face disfigure, his friend’s screams mixed with those of Linda McCartney.

This horrific scene is the very last scene in the book. Wallace has taken us through almost a thousand pages, and we have worked long and hard to come with him. And he rewards us with this. It seems cruel. But even though it is the last thing we read, this isn’t the last thing that happens to the characters. It is a scene from Gately’s memory, something that is helping him to ward off the Substance, to remind himself why he is fighting so hard to remain sober, why he is subjecting himself to so much pain in the hospital. This last scene is therefore incredibly heroic. Gately is struggling courageously to continually renew his determination to stay clean, to not give in to the Substance, to govern himself. Wallace makes clear that Gately must find that courage primarily within himself. He cannot struggle by giving himself up to Alcoholics Anonymous, or to God. To be sure, Gately does draw on the support of others, on his AA sponsors, on Joelle, his developing love interest. But the source of Gately’s strength is not located outside of him, in an entity to which he submits. At the same time of course, his desire for the substance, the source of his addiction, is also within him. His desire to stay alive and to govern himself struggles with his desire to submit, to concede, to be governed.




I think Don Gately teaches us what is involved in the struggle to become active. What it would take. And he teaches us this in our bones, way down deep, in a way we fully feel.

We learn from him that the struggle is vitally important. It is literally life or death.

And we learn from him that the struggle is unimaginably hard.

But we also learn from him, I think, that we are unimaginably strong. That we have an enormous reservoir of potential to become active that we may be only dimly aware of. Gately is a product of Wallace’s imagination, but he is nonetheless an actual presence in the world, a character in our lives, an example we can try to follow as we fight to become active, and as we struggle for democracy.

Schools of Our Own

Here is the piece I wrote for the Antipode symposium on the Communifesto for Fuller Geographies.  (I promised in my last post to post it here)…

I think the “Communifesto” is an important document that will push the conversation about what is to be done in the academy in productive new directions.  My contribution will think on a relatively longer time scale than the authors, and in some ways I will work against the grain of the document, but I hope my comments will be taken to complement the authors’ proposals more than contravene them.

Let me start by raising a question I think the authors don’t: should we fight to defend the public university against neoliberalization?  I think the answer is: Yes and no.  Yes, in the sense that within the limits of our present society a university degree is important key to material wealth, and we want that key to be widely accessible.  The state-funded university is a way to socialize the cost, keep education affordable for students, and thus relieve the corrosive and growing reliance on student debt.  There are important stakes here concerning the equitable distribution of material fortunes.  But, at the same time, this way of thinking conceives of the question only within established norms.  It accepts a system in which state-controlled institutions stamp individuals with an imprimatur so that they may rise in the capitalist economy.  While it is true that greater equality within that system is preferable to greater inequality, nevertheless the system itself is badly broken.[1]  So, no, we should not defend the public university against neoliberalism if it means struggling to maintain some measure of equality within a system we should abandon.

So then is there anything about the university that is worth fighting for?  I think there is.  I think the university’s value is that it offers people an institutional, temporal, and spatial caesura, a bubble where they are able to set aside labor and work[2] and devote themselves instead to schole.[3]  Schole, for Aristotle, is the lifelong struggle to develop our human potential, to hone our particular excellence as a species.  This excellence has many aspects, including knowledge, practical wisdom, physical skills, and social intelligence.  He thinks our potential can only be realized in fellowship with others, through active participation in a political community.  He stresses that schole requires serious effort.  Indeed the word does not designate the ability itself (to think or speak or judge), rather it means the time and effort devoted to developing one’s human excellence.

Though there are differences of course, Aristotle’s schole resonates greatly with Marx’s arguments in the Grundrisse about what he calls “really free working,” which he says is an intense effort people undertake to understand the conditions of their own existence and reappropriate control over those conditions by becoming active and taking up the project of managing their lives for themselves.[4]  It is essentially the project the workers in Jacques Rancière’s Nights of Labor (1991) were engaging in: in their off hours they read, discussed, learned, played, communed, grew, and developed their potential on their own terms, outside the demands of capitalist labor.  So if we pass Aristotle’s schole through the mesh of Marx and then through Rancière’s workers, it becomes not just a general project of developing our human potential, but the revolutionary project of developing our full humanity beyond a capitalist political-economy that reduces value to exchange value, human relations to competition, and human beings to workers and consumers (q.v. Engels, 1996, pp. 47-48).

Schole is always an ongoing project, and so of course it is not one we can complete in the university’s bubble.  Our whole life must be a continual struggle to understand and manage the conditions of our existence.  All we can hope for from the university as an institution, I think, is to offer a sort of kick start.  It can be an opportunity to practice schole intensely, a place where we can be surrounded by others also devoted to schole, some of whom are even professional scholars.[5]  It is a chance to practice the techniques and develop the habits (logic, poetry, critical thinking, rhetoric, philology, etc.) that are essential for schole.  To the extent this kick-start is useful, and given that universities (and schools) are the main institutional form this kick-start takes in our society, then in that sense I agree we should preserve the university.  But the point is never the university itself, the institution, its structure and degrees, or whether or not it is managed by the state.  The point is always the active, difficult, and joyous project of schole itself.  We only need the university if it is useful for schole.  We must recognize that even if we were to successfully defend the public university by preserving it as a state-funded institution, we would still have to hope the state values schole.  Even if we achieved a robust public university in which state support drawn from fair taxation ensured the academy was accessible to everyone, we would still have no guarantee students will get to practice schole in a way that will stoke their lifelong project.  In fact, if we are honest, we should guess it is probably more likely such an academy would train students to be loyal citizens, or soldiers, or state officials—whatever the state finds most useful—none of which encourages the active thought and self-management of schole.

So I am not so sure about the value of the public university, at least in the long term.  Sure, in the short term it is better than the neoliberal university, which is merely a corporate R&D division and technical training school.  But I think ultimately, in the long term, we need to figure out how to do schole on our own, without corporations or foundations or the state.[6]  Like the workers in the Nights of Labor, we need to create encounters in which we work together to augment each other’s schole.  Those encounters might be supported by autonomous associations of mutual aid and solidarity—let’s call them “schools”—where we collectively strive to develop our schole.  It seems to me that should be the long-term vision.  Unfortunately, there is probably good reason to believe the public university as we know it (even the good-old, free, UK one) is more hindrance to that long-term vision than it is a help.

One of the many strengths of the Communisfesto is that it offers concrete, practical steps that we can take today.  What would the steps be if we want to create the “schools” I have proposed?  Certainly, in our current climate, we should not vociferously attack the public university.  It seems instead we should start from the (correct) assumption that such “schools” already exist.  People are already doing schole together, on their own, in different ways and in different settings, both inside and outside the academy.  The tactics we need, it seems to me, would involve a habit of looking for these associations and developing our ability to recognize them.  And, as we get better at perceiving them, we will need to develop ways to help them grow, spread, and flourish.  We should help them propagate themselves to the point where they pervade our societies, to the point they are able to crowd out the corporate and state schools and cause them to wither away.  Autonomous schools might proliferate to the point they create a world in which schole no longer has to be carved out of the night by tired bodies and minds, but rather becomes a habit, a normal activity in an active, vital, and joyous life-in-common.

[1] See Ranciere’s argument that we should think about equality as a presupposition to be demonstrated rather than as a quantifiable end to be achieved (e.g. 1995; 1999).

[2] In Hannah Arendt’s (1998) sense.  Of course they are increasingly less able to do so in the neoliberal university.

[3] The university is by no means the only place for schole, nor is it the only means of prying open this caesura.

[4] In Notebook VI, in the Section on “Adam Smith: work as sacrifice.”  See also Merrifield (2011, esp. pp. 155-157).

[5] Which of course simply means a person who does schole for a living.

[6] More generally, we need desperately to decouple “public” and “state,” and we need to figure out together what it means to be public (not to mention common) without the state.

Works Cited

Arendt, H. (1998 [1958]) The Human Condition. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Engels, F. (1996 [1845]) The Great Towns. The City Reader. Edited by R. LeGates and F. Stout. New York, Routledge, pp. 46-55.

Merrifield, A. (2011) Magical Marxism. London, Pluto Press.

Rancière, J. (1991 [1981]) The Nights of Labor: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France. Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Rancière, J. (1995 [1992]) On the Shores of Politics. Translated by L. Heron. New York, Verso.

Rancière, J. (1999 [1995]) Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Translated by J. Rose. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Communifesto Symposium

Antipode, a radical journal in geography, has a series of symposiums around various themes.  This symposium is a set of responses to the “Communifesto for Fuller Geographies: Towards Mutual Security,” by the Participatory Geographies Research Group.  It proposes a series of ideas and practices for resisting the ongoing privatization of the contemporary university.  I have a response piece in the symposium called “Schools of Our Own.”  I will post that piece separately as well, but of course it will make the most sense in the context of of the symposium and the other responses.

Situationists on free time


A useful return to some older arguments about free time and leisure in this piece just posted on libcom.  I particularly liked the suggestion that “when the revolutionary proletariat manifests itself as such, it will not be as a new audience for some new spectacle, but as people actively participating in every aspect of their lives.”  Free time as active engagement with the world and with others.  I wonder if the tension between free time and leisure could be fruitfully taken in new directions using Aristotle’s notion of schole.  It is usually translated as “leisure,” but if we give it just a slight young-Marxist nudge it means something more like the serious effort we engage in to fulfill our species-being.  I haven’t worked this out yet, but I am pretty sure there is something there, something that would speak quite effectively to Debord’s concerns about passivity, as well as Ranciere’s critique of Debord, not to mention Lefebvre’s engagement (or lack thereof) with the question of people becoming active…


Reading an interview with Zizek linked to at Pop Theory got me thinking about the interview format.  Zizek comes off looking even more like a court jester than usual here.  Partly that is his intention, to subvert the desire to create a hagiography of him.  But part of it also is the format, the jump-cuts from idea to idea, the hard-hitting questions about Lady Gaga, his musings about a “Virginia Woolf burger.”  He presents as a buffoon.  Whatever Zizek’s quality as a thinker and a scholar, he is in no sense at his best here.

The same could be said of David Foster Wallace in David Lipsky’s book about his “road trip” with the author in 1996, just after Infinite Jest was released.  Lipsky’s book consists almost entirely of a transcript of the audio tapes he made while interviewing Wallace over the course of several days.  While there are a few gems scattered here and there, for the most part what Wallace says is pedestrian.  It is in striking contrast to the fecund intellect and exhilarating writing in his fiction and essays.  At one point Wallace even worries how poorly he is articulating his ideas in the interview and wishes he could write his responses instead.

I do six or eight drafts of everything that I do…If we’d done this interview through the mail, I could be really really really smart.  I’m not all that fast.  And I’m really self-conscious.  And I get confused really easily.  When I’m in a room by myself alone, and have enough time, I can be really really smart…I don’t think I’m quite as smart, one-on-one, with people, when I’m self-conscious, and I’m really really confused…one reason I’m uneasy about these interviews is I know that I’m a lot more talented alone, when I’ve got time, than I am in the back and forth of this…(Lipsky 2009, p. 218).

Really.  Despite these very real formal limitations, however, many of us tend to treat interviews very much like any other piece of work by an author.  Foucault is the most obvious example.  The interviews are part of the corpus.  I have treated Ranciere’s interviews this way.  But reading Wallace talking extemporaneously in a rental car drinking a diet Pepsi and chewing tobacco made it clear to me just how different this format is.  If it can make someone like Wallace sound run-of-the-mill, it is clearly a different animal.  Even if scholars typically have a better conditions, like more time to think, shorter sessions, and edited transcripts, they are still working much more off-the-cuff than in their written work and lectures.  Moreover, interviews are not solo projects, but collaborations with other people.  Foucault’s interview with the Maoists is a good example.  He concedes all sorts of stuff there that is surprising, to say the least, such as when he seems to agree with the Maoists (p. 26 of Power/Knowledge) that in the revolutionary struggle the proletariat must lead everybody else, and that the unity between proletariat and non-proletariat must be enforced by a revolutionary state apparatus.  Yikes.  It seems more than plausible that to an extent he was humoring them, or playing a role he thought they expected of him, or was even just trying not to hurt their feelings.

Plato believed we are composed of three different parts, each struggling to direct our life.  Nietzsche agreed, though he thought that we are not just three but a whole multitude of different wills, that we have a whole social order inside us.  Deleuze and Guattari too.  If they are right, then every person whose work we encounter is multiple.  There are many David Foster Wallaces: the scintillating one, the generous one, the petulant one, the genius one, the depressed one, the lazy one, etc.  The one that emerges in interviews tends to be not the white-hot intelligence of Infinite Jest but a humble, kind, and pensive man.  The interview Zizek is a clown.  The interview Lefebvre was oblique.  The interview Foucault, it seems to me, tended to be playful and ironic and attentive to the desires of the interviewer.

I am sure I am not the first to consider this question, I just thought it was worth thinking through a bit, to register a reminder that we should pay attention to the context in which someone is offering their ideas, and to not judge the tangled mass of wills that is Zizek or Foucault or Wallace only by what they say in interviews.  And maybe I even want to say that we should give these texts less weight than work that has been thought through, especially when they are done in the context of a publicity junket (as were the interviews with Zizek and Wallace).  But even when they are ‘academic’ interviews, they are still significantly warped by this hagiography function.  Because let’s face it, when we interview people in academia, partly what we are doing is beatifying them.  And the weight of that function can’t help but have an impact on both participants in the dialogue.  Interviews have their use, they can reveal things other formats can’t, but on the whole I wonder we engage them a bit more than we should.