what does it mean to be at war
October 10, 2012 § Leave a comment
“And I have to say that, wherever one goes, in whatever circle one runs, every thought of the situation is immediately understood and conjured away as a perversion. To forestall this unfortunate reaction, there is always, of course, at least one respectable way out, which is to pass the thought off as a critique. By revealing my hostility to a thing whose functions and determinisms I have grasped, I protect the very thing I want to destroy from myself, from my practice. And that — this innocuousness — is exactly what THEY expect when they urge me to declare myself a critic.” — Tiqqun
“What I or anyone can offer is not truth, the path to some grand, final moment of overcoming. To move without this cannot be a program though it may be at times strategic, cannot be morally mandated though it will most certainly involve ethics. Prakash Kona writes, “the dispossessed of history are not guided by method but by madness”; what will guide us is not an abstract longing, but the maddening, material, immediate need for something as impossible and otherworldly as liberation. Therein lies the truth of Dworkin’s 24 hour truce where there is no rape; not its high minded ideals, but its absolute necessity and absolute impossibility. I am unsure of how to proceed; my hope is that the disclosure of this life, its formation through contact, its movement through books and histories, offers some assistance in the lives and struggles of others.” — C.E.
The time has to come for me to reconsider my position, after a long absence, after having slipped out the back door of my life. And yet I was living the whole time, in a fantasy of separation from the work and the institutions that permit and constrain that life. Adorno writes somewhere that the cultural critic must imagine his own autonomy in order to address his society as a totality, and though this fantasy blinds him to his own assimilation to the culture industry, to the (increasingly devalued) service that he provides it as a guarantor of authenticity, a veneer over his complete submission to market imperatives, this self-deception allows critique to fully realize itself, to become a model.
I have had only one thought that went far enough beyond my own sad passions to reach that level. It’s something that’s been endlessly confirmed by the experience of turning away, but one I can only admit by turning back: we are at war. I know, it’s disappointing; so banal, and not even clear. What we? What is the implied subject position? But I do mean everyone, friends and enemies alike, and here I simply apply to my own class what for most of the world has long been simple common sense. How is it possible anymore to believe there is an outside, any privileged space that is not just another green zone? We’ve all seen the videos.
So the luxury of silence has only shown me that there’s no critical use anymore for that alleged benefit of hermitage: nothing could be more useless than another reconceptualization of totality. No more hip little manifestoes on the metaphysics of finance or the revolution to come, no more revisions to Marxist textbooks, no more software solutions, no more grand narratives, unless they are also partial, the products of lived, interpersonal experience. The only intellectual work that retains any organic link to the war we live in is learning how to fight and how to survive — the collective self-education of the necessary knowledge and skills, all of which already exist despite being repeatedly obscured by lies and propaganda. We want conversation more than books.
What does it mean to be at war? Or more specifically to our situation, what does it mean to be at war when the enemy has the only army? Certainly not a new problem, even on the terms of petit-bourgeois “good citizens” in the imperial core — the theories have been accumulating at least since May ’68. But there are those in my generation and (broadly) my class who have given this question some thought, and whose responses bear some resemblance to each other. Limiting myself to writing, I can name a few examples. None of them are professional academics, though undoubtedly some are students, as I am. But they are still critics, even prophets after a fashion.
There are readers of Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee, a radical collective who published in France from the late ‘90s to 2008. Like the ‘68ers, Tiqqun abandoned a politics centered on class to follow Sorel and his myth of the general strike, in which mass social action, including violence, is primarily symbolic, and in which perfectly embodying a principle is more important than achieving discrete objectives. Unlike the ‘68ers, they emphasized a praxis of clandestinity, even within their own ‘ranks,’ where no sides or strategies are identified except for the valorization of criminality. Against organization, consensus, representation, and utopian projection, for them the war is internal to capitalist society as such, a “civil war,” the goal of which is “establishing forms-of-life in their difference.” No radical subject-position, but desubjectivization through the relentless multiplication of differences. Communes are to be gathered and multiplied for some great insurrectionary conflict to come.
This sort of attitude has some adherents within the North American Occupy movement and student protests. The black blocs and others regularly challenged the politics of a larger movement that emphasized radical transparency and nonviolence. Whereas here and in the UK this ideological and tactical difference has been a fundamental threat to solidarity, it seems to be much less so in popular movements elsewhere, such as Greece or Egypt. Overall, the new movements of 2011 tended not to petition the state (no central demands, or at least no ‘realistic’ ones) but fundamentally challenged its legitimacy, to the point of fighting its agents in the streets. It seems the key differences between the mainstream and its ultraleft are secrecy and the extent to which they continue to claim legitimacy in the liberal language of popular sovereignty. Put differently, to what extent it’s a useful strategy to expose the state’s hypocrisy in order to delegitimize it in the eyes of its citizens.
Friends have passed on to me the writings of young feminists (all North American, as far as I know) eager to stage a revival of ‘70s radfem. The writings are diverse, but through the mission statements and several of the other articles and zines one can extract a sentiment that resonates with Tiqqun. Replace the biological essentialism (the theory) and lesbian separatism (the practice) with a quasi-Foucaultian constructivism in which any historical, biological, or anthropological referents for the thesis that gender simply is patriarchal oppression and phallic sex violent exploitation drop out: sex is reduced to a figure of discourse within the system of capitalist patriarchy, beyond which it is impossible to think. These writings also do not claim to issue from the perspective of the subject “woman” but (after queer theory) out of a founding exclusion from normative masculinity, the only valid subject, possessing all social power including the power of speech. They are, then, against men without being for women. Instead of separatism, some call for “gender strike,” or the general refusal of all gendering behaviors, especially sex. “We condemn even the most consensual sex for being the gendered event it is.”
I’m describing very different groups here and far too few to prove anything about a generational milieu or even a coherent sensibility, but there do seem to be some basic assumptions shared by the writers I’ve discussed so far. To start: a valorization of ‘70s radicalism over ‘60s, resistance to a universalized, abstract authority combined with a decentralized concept of power, a radical constructivist notion of history that favors radical breaks over continuity, vehement anti-humanism and anti-liberalism, a critical focus on middle-class life in the imperial core, and identification (perhaps imaginative, perhaps not, it’s difficult to say) with that class’s outcasts: criminals, fugitives, dropouts, sex workers, abuse victims, the mentally disturbed.
Slightly less obvious from a surface reading is the common assumption that the only thinkable relation between individuals is that of exchange. They’re all aware of the left critiques, particularly that exchange presupposes formally equivalent, autonomous proprietor subjects (Tiqqun’s “Bloom,” the empty consumer of late modernity, is their critique; for the neo-radfems all conceptions of the subject are created in the image of the bourgeois white man), and that between materially unequal parties securing consent is just another tool for domination. But though they occasionally gesture beyond the subject to some sort of communism, they refuse to theorize those relations in positive terms. It follows for them that, whether on the street or in the bedroom, all traces of liberalism, in thought as well as deed, have to be weeded out and destroyed to make room for a communism that only exists in oppositional struggle, en épatant les (petit) bourgeoises.
Writing as a pseudonym myself, the function of anonymity in many of these discourses makes sense when one considers that they are (most likely, given their bibliographies if nothing else) members of the class whose mores they most viciously target. The mode of critique-as-pure-negation they practice requires that they subtract themselves from it as much as possible, excepting the odd autobiographical aside to interpellate their equally petit-bourgeois readers. And of course the entire aim is to destroy the self and its support structures: parties, programs, assemblies, identities, couples, authors. All of this makes sense only if one assumes that these discursive and institutional structures organize nothing that has cognizable qualities of its own, especially nothing that resembles in any meaningful way the terms of its late capitalist enclosure. It’s telling that, as far as I know, there are no POC or (explicitly) working-class people who write like this. For all the tiqqunista and neo-radfem talk of capitalism or the globalization of immiseration, the immediate target is the bad ethics of those who are fully immersed in capitalist culture — which, contra all the stereotypes about manipulating the ignorant masses, “brainwashes” those who have the most privileged access to it, i.e. educated middle-class culture workers in the urban core. Not only historical but also spatial continuity is verboten.
One of the consequences of doing away with programs and directed goals is that the labor of organization toward achieving external objectives — growing the movement, getting a law passed, defense against the police — is folded into reproductive labor, or maintaining the movement’s internal solidarity. Everything then becomes an ethical issue; every personal interaction becomes charged with risk. Schmittianism all the way down. It’s not surprising that this worldview appeals to the younger members of a class that has entered free-fall, or that it invokes outsider fantasies of criminality, sexual violence, mental illness, and post-apocalypse. We mistake the constant, brutally competitive struggle we have to endure to maintain our dwindling privileges as oppression: we’re “forced” to consume media and publish our opinions about it, “forced” to enjoy consensual sex, “forced” to conform to arbitrary professional standards, “forced” to perform normative gender identities, “forced” to live in gentrifying neighborhoods in global cities, “forced” to give our personal information to Facebook. I don’t mean to belittle anyone’s suffering. But unlike (say) violent expropriation or sweatshop labor, it’s the resources we have access to, the effects of generations of organized activism, and the politics of ownership that determine these things as pleasures or impositions, not the things themselves. Otherwise no one would try to defend them, and no one would desire them. Most of the writers I’m discussing recognize this, that the pain we feel won’t be resolved until patriarchal, white supremacist capitalism is fully abolished. But a drive toward existential authenticity among mostly white petit-bourgeois dissidents (no more so than liberal political correctness) has no magical power to overcome a system of domination maintained by concentrated wealth, not individual minds.
So what does it mean to be at war? As a first step, I think it means not letting ourselves be deluded about the sources of power. It also means being able to recognize the ways we and others treat and have treated each other that don’t actively reproduce capitalist relations, which demands careful, promiscuous attention to anthropology, history, culture, and personal experience. This isn’t possible without first letting go of the assumption that because capitalism (or any related form of power) is totalizing and hegemonic it’s a phenomenological a priori, equally present everywhere, in every kiss and handshake, on every square inch of our bodies, in every corner of our thoughts. Most terrifyingly, it means taking very, very seriously how likely we are to lose. But that will be because our enemies are better organized, have more resources, and have beaten, intimidated, or (decreasingly) paid off most of the planet into submission, not because any of us are incapable of democracy, or of communism.
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