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!

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OK, I am able to breathe a little easier after reading the Holland piece (an unpublished paper on OWS).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

Really?

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.

Virno: more politics beyond the state

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Virno, P. (1996) “Virtuosity and revolution: the political theory of exodus,” In P. Virno and M. Hardt, Radical Thought in Italy, University of Minnesota Press, pp. 189-210, translated by E. Emory.

Virno joins the chorus of those theorizing a politics beyond the state (and beyond capitalism).  He offers a radical anti-Hobbesian perspective that seeks to return continually to Hobbes’ original moment when we agreed to surrender our own power to an “artificial person” outside ourselves.  Virno wants to return to this moment in order to disavow it, he wants us to resolve to act as if the purported social contract never existed.  It is this acting as if there never was any contract that I think best captures his idea of exodus.  The political action appropriate to exodus is both a refusal of “the baleful dialectic of acquiescence and transgression” that is our relationship with the sovereign state, and the intentional and inventive search for a life and a political community beyond the state.

“Radical disobedience,” for Virno, consists essentially of casting ourselves into Hobbes’ state of nature, imagining ourselves inhabiting  a world before the state came to monopolize control in the political community.  In this imagination, democracy becomes something radically different than we typically think of it today.  Representative democracy is nothing more than

a restriction of democracy tout court.  It goes without saying…that an opposition to this course of events [the restriction of representative democracy], if conducted in the name of values of representation, is pathetic and pointless–as useful as preaching chastity to sparrows.  Democracy today has to be framed in terms of the construction and experimentation of forms of nonrepresentative and extraparliamentary democracy.  All the rest is vacant chitchat (p. 202).

We must begin to form the practices and institutions of this new democracy, this Republic, such as soviets, councils, and leagues.  To experiment with positive alternatives to life within the state and capitalism.