Saturday, January 25, 2014

Notes on the Coming Progressive Kristallnacht

A progressive Kristallnacht is coming. That’s the earnest warning issued by Tom Perkins—venture capitalist and historical parallelist extraordinarie—in a letter to the Wall Street Journal. In Perkins’ world, Occupy was a dress rehearsal for fascism, and at any minute dreadlocked smelly stormtroopers are going to get all smashy-smashy on the property of today’s “Jews”—that is, on the property of what Perkins calls, following Occupy’s rhetoric, the “1%”. We could say so many things: about the anti-Semitic conflation of being wealthy with being Jewish as a means of coding being against the rich as being against Jews; about how Tom is so distanced from his Bay Area locality—or is just generally an unimaginative bloke—that he didn’t think to mobilize the fact that anarchists have smashed windows aplenty in his surrounds, but instead hears the jangling of shattering glass in the public reaction to Google buses; about the impoverished imaginaries of the world’s elite, who need to deck themselves out in the borrowed garments of histories past so as to steel themselves against the impossibility of their having a future; about the fact that WSJ editorial standards seem so minimal that, shucks, all of us might as well dust off old poems written in high school and submit them for the journal’s august consideration. (Direct action: overload the WSJ editorial mailbox with re-writings of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”!!!!!)

But what if we said that Perkins, in some bizarre way, is right?

Mightn’t there by a creeping tendency within liberal progressivism—whatever that is—toward something like fascism? I live in Chicago, where an authoritarian state buoying itself on a fictive liberal populism is part of the political ordinary, but this emergent articulation is evident elsewhere in the wacky world of liberal letters. Consider Sean Wilentz’s recent nonsense, which basically encouraged us to defend the state’s agglomeration of massive surveillance powers as a requirement for defending the thin slivers of the welfare state that remain. (In the interests of asserting the epistemological soundness of Marxist futurology, I’ll note that I argued that this was going to be the liberal response last June.) But it’s not just the statist turn—or, if not turn, the statist standing-in-place—of liberal publics that comes to mind as I think through the articulation of liberalism and fascism. As venture capitalist and social theorist Tom Perkins insists, Occupy was and is in some sense functional for what we might think of, however loosely, as fascism.

My thinking on this got started with a tweet from a pal:

And she’s right. Most of us intuited this Septembers ago. I mean, come on, who of us were able to chant “We are the 99%!” without bile rising in the throat? Who of us didn’t find the obsession with finance capital, Wall Street, and what bonuses rich morons receive to miss the point? We could ignore all this when the occupations existed, when the positivity of the social world we were forming overwhelmed the problematic negativity of the imaginary that got most of us on the streets in the first place. But what work does the ideological negation of the “1%” do when there is not a positive, material, social force behind this negation, a force for which negation is simply a derived effect of world-building?

Let’s say that the politico-cultural life of fascism consists in the articulation of a populism for which the negation of a fabulated class enemy functions as a means of obfuscating its internal unmooring from the materiality of a class that would give it actual consistency.  It is only this fabulation that coheres the set of the “99%” nowadays. Indeed, occupations were so crucial to Occupy because without them—without the forms of association, socialization, and politicization they enabled—we actually need the “1%” to make us a thing. Lacking the material positivity of class formation that Marx and Engels called “association,” we ground our non-class first in imaginary acts of negation (the “1%”) and then, creepingly, more and more and more, we attempt to positivize this negation through a turn toward the state, by finding in the state a source of transcendence that will cohere us in and out of our incoherence, even when this transcendence sucks. Think Wilentz.  

Association is hard. That is the entire point of Marx and Engel’s political work. But it’s an end in itself, an end whose material positivity exceeds the politics of negation we get trapped in when we structure our political imaginaries through the party, the state, capital, and so on. In the well-known words of the young Marx:

When communist workmen gather together, their immediate aim is instruction, propaganda, etc. But at the same time they acquire a new need—the need for society—and what appears as a means has become an end. The practical development can be most strikingly observed in the gatherings of French socialist workers. Smoking, eating and drinking, etc., are no longer means of creating links between people. Company, association, conversation, which in its turn has society as its goal, is enough for them.

For Marx, the desire for tools with which to negate the transcendent rule of capital (“instruction, propaganda, etc.”) converts into a plane of immanent sociality where, quite simply, the workers couldn’t give a fuck about party, state, or capital—they’re drinking, conversing, associating. It’s at this level of sociality that Marx pegs his hopes for the future. And us too, I think. Most of the demos, marches, and protests Occupy put together had as their aim some negation of the capitalist given, but most of us stuck around for one another. I was always more trilled that we were shouting together than shouting at anything. And just think of the nonsense chants, how they expose a pure sociality that is indifferent to the world that is supposed to be its addressee.

So, let’s say this: Occupy began as a movement intending the control, regulation, or (in radical cases) the dismantling of capital, but its radical core consisted in the structured intuition that all it needed was to intend itself and materially maintain this intention in time. Communism is that thing where you actually don’t give a fuck about the rich, and you realize this world to the extent that you retrain your attention from the pornography of power toward associating—and maintaining association—with others. It’s hard, sure: yelling at a bank is way easier than sincerely working through a general assembly. So is yelling to the state to protect us from the depredations of finance bros. But the real movement of communism is a movement away from the state and capital and toward one another.

I don’t really like engaging with or replicating the overburdened symbolics of fascism, but what Perkins gives us in his hyperbolic invocation of the Reich is a distorted measure of our failure to materialize ourselves without recourse to a social poetics of negation or through the transcendent recoding of the state. The trick, I guess I’m saying, is to start building a world in which I encounter you without first having to negate the words of a finance bro, a world in which I simply ignore the hilarious screeds of a class walking on stilts because we’re elsewhere, doing other things. This isn’t to ignore the work of negativity that necessarily inheres within any anarchist/communist movement: the capitalist state doesn’t let us abandon it so easily. The point, rather, is that we will only be able to contend against this state to the extent that we don’t care about it, that we materialize the positivity of our sociality in such an overwhelming fashion that negating state violence is a (necessary) afterthought. Movements that begin in ideological negation wind up materially negated: when the militarized thugs of the proto-fascist state broke up occupation after occupation, how many 99%ers felt so positively attached to the world they helped make that they stuck around to defend it? Indeed, the conditions of possibility for Perkins’ future fascism are identical to the conditions of possibility for Occupy’s historical defeat: our failure to materialize our social positivity. Negating “the 1%” can become an alibi for fascism when the only object materializing the negative will of “99%” is the state; “the 99%” is nothing when it fabulates its existence through the negation of the “1%”. What remains to us, then, as we navigate these troubled seas, as we try tacking between the Scylla of capital and the Charybdis of statism, is the work of association. Drinking smoking conversing. Working reading arguing. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

And Then Theory Wept: Precarity Talk and Miley's Sadness

* Who better to reveal our generalized inability to find joy in autonomy than Miley Cyrus? I was at a bar with some friends after a day of MLA and “We Can’t Stop” came on and I was drunk and relieved.  It’s our party we can do what we want / It’s our party we can do what we want. It was like us! So I had more Jameson and was happy to be away from work and with old friends and with silly pop. I began gushing about the Miley of that song as a nouveau phalansterian. “A pre-critical socialist!” I think I said—but a socialist nonetheless. Bodies creeping into a scene away from wherever, sweating in mad high contact. Bodies doing whatever, embodying pure whateverness. Miley the Queen of Quodlibet!
            -----“But it’s a really sad song,” my friend said.
            And he’s right. The repetition, the minor key, the desperate wailing at the end, the generalized sense of Fuck, we can’t stop!—it’s a really sad song. The best party in the world, the party of pure whatever-being, the party where want is act and “we run things / things don’t run we”—this party’s anthem is a dirge that cuts out right before the tears kick in.
            If Miley can’t revel in her autonomy, people, we’re fucked.

* It’s like so much theory today is just another weapon in a growing arsenal of less lethal weapons, the emotechnics and lachrymators set to work by the state. The theme of this year’s MLA was “Vulnerable Times,” and a torrent of terms flow from the title like so many tears: abandonment, precarity, bare life, dispossession… And then theory wept. My problem isn’t that states of existential depletion, vital neglect, and necropolitical pulverization aren’t real. They are. Nor is my problem that some thinkers haven’t thought through the exposure of abandonment to the kinds of lives that get lived when bareness is what you got, when dispossession augurs an entrance into an undercommon sociality from which something new might come. They have. Even the MLA program wanted to see vulnerability “not as weakness or victimhood but as a space for engagement and resistance emerging from a sense of fundamental openness, interdependence, and solidarity.” Exposed in and through the implosion of liberal governance, vulnerability appears as an ontological condition (“fundamental openness”) that is always already post-liberal.
But what’s the payoff in recognizing that bodies can’t sustain neoliberalism, that the current iteration of the world effects an unworlding? We already knew that liberalism cannot be lived; we’re just proliferating new figures for its unlivability. Given that so much of this precarity talk is premised on narratives of the state’s devastating withdrawal, its neglect of its redistributive promise or project, theory’s tears produce an affective reinvestment in a state we will never have. But more: the functionality of much precarity talk for statist imaginaries is best evident in the fact that we rarely think of the state as such as vulnerable or abandonable. We never figure precarity as the state; we imagine that, somehow, the cold monster will endure long after it has abandoned you and me and everyone.
So this is how theory is an emotechnic of the state:  We think we’re weeping for populations abandoned by the state. We never ask: what if we’re weeping as the state abandoned by the populations it thought it had abandoned? Crying tears that Hobbes’ frontispiece sovereign might cry if it suddenly found its body depopulated by the bodies that once filled it? Crying the tears of an old lonely abandoned monster?

* Remember that crying cop, sad that he had to club kids eager to make a break for it back into the state’s arms?

* I’m writing this in the wake of the acquittal of Kelly Thomas’ murderers, the homeless ill man killed twice or thrice or countless times by the state. I’m writing this out of a feeling of fecklessness and sadness, an acute consciousness of not having done anything and not knowing what could be done. I’m writing this because abandonment is a fact, because vulnerability and precarity are differentially distributed and embodied. But I’m mostly writing it because, in the syncope of consciousness separating my recognition of the maldistribution of bodily vulnerability and my awareness of the disembodied nature of my response to this fact, I will have already forgotten what our bodies—yours and mine—can do. I’m sad that I’ve lived this forgetting as a concession to the specularity of merely witnessing what we all already know. I’m sad that I haven’t tested my bodily competency, my bodily power, that we haven’t tested our bodily competency, our bodily power, to do something about this, to fuck shit up, to go somewhere else or make something new. And I’m sad—though you might laugh at this next sadness, finding it an inevitable sadness, citing thesis 11 to tell me to get over it—that that most contemporary theory, the kind of theory that yields “Vulnerable Times” thematics, the theory I read with love everyday, hasn’t enjoined us to enjoy this power. I’m sad that one of the most important theoretical texts of our moment is frequently read as an incitement to participate in sadness rather than as an attempt to measure our capacities to unbind ourselves from it. I’m sad that theory won’t help my sadness resolve into a great burst of embodied laughter or turn into a kind of anarchist wake where we remember the dead but fight like hell for the living—and, yes, of course, always, the dead.

* I’m sad that theory never tells us what my comrades do—except that theory, that is, that doesn’t count as theory, the kind of theory read by rad grads and the odd prof, the kind of theory that you can’t even really cite, the kind that keeps faith with the possibility of radical autonomy, the kind that is less concerned with what the state does to us than what we can do to the state and more importantly with one another, the kind of theory that tells us that, when this shit happens, “we go”:

So we go. To the streets. To the occupations. To the marches – the seemingly banal and the potentially-insurrectionary alike. We go. To the barricades. Together. And if we have questions or doubts – we’ll figure it out when we get there. But we have to go. A las barricadas!

We go because we can, because we have that power, because we are abandoning as much as abandoned, and we live and act this doubleplay of refusing and being-refused together, in the joyous collective autonomy we might share after and through and within the bonecrunch of abject heteronomy.

* Nothing heroic. No Vince Lombardi speeches. That’s not what I want. Just a recognition that we still don’t know what our bodies can do, that our exposure to violence or our dispossession or bareness doesn’t exhaust or even begin to describe our potential, that we can run, walk, and wheel from a world that crushes (our very faith in) our collective autonomy because, well, we still got it, it’s still there. At this point, there’s more revolutionary value in reading descriptions of people getting up from chairs than in continuing to write power’s autobiography. Getting up from chairs: philosophy’s oldest standup routine. Kant, the third antinomy:

When, for example, I, completely of my own free will, and independently of the necessarily determinative influence of natural causes, rise from my chair, there commences with this event, including its material consequences in infinitum, an absolutely new series…

I’m not invested in a metaphysics of the will or whatever. I’m just laughing with Kant, at Kant, through Kant, at the amazing fact that some of us get up from chairs, at the amazing fact that freedom is right there—a freedom that, if not a “first beginning,” is nonetheless absolute, part of an “absolutely new series.” We run things / things don’t run we.

* So Kant goes. No doubt through K√∂nigsberg on one of his clockwork walks. But how might we rethink the current scene of social theory if we put Kant in his chair in the space of our abandoned present, and followed him from the spontaneity of a freedom that can’t be exhausted to the demo or occupation? Kant a las barricadas? What if we learned, with Kant, to take a kind of pleasure in the inherence of freedom in the ordinariness of our variegated and differentiated bodies’ praxis? I’m engaging the unfortunately ableist metaphorics of getting up from a chair not to promote a paradigm of action but to generate a new attunement of thought, one that gets up and over our contemporary inability to find joy in our autonomy.

While the MLA vulnerability theme was playing out, a subconference of vulnerable people gathered autonomously to share and develop technologies of autonomy. I couldn't make any of it, but I heard it was a brilliant blast. 

* So, the minimal demand: Not a theory that reflects reality, that informs us of the shittiness of our present, that calculates the infinite modes by which power decimates us. We all know how shitty it is, how wasted and depleted. We want a theory that works to empower us to remake the real, that acts in the present as a force of and for affective recalibration, a theory that puts us into joyous contact with the bodily fact of inexhaustible—and therefore endlessly shareable—autonomy. A theory that puts us on the go. To the occupation, the demo, the barricades. To Miley’s party to tell her that it doesn’t have to be so fucking sad. To the MLA to tell them we get enough tear gas, thank you much, and we want a theory that joys in autonomy, the glimmers of it that remain—which might mean, sure, that for the present we just talk about vacating chairs. To the state to tell them that we’re going away for a while, probably forever, with one another. We will carry our wounded with us; sometimes they’ll carry us. We’ll pool our bodily resources and go along, laughing and dancing. We’ll let the state do the crying.