Personal Philosophy Politics

Ranciere, Democracy and Insurrection

This post might read in a slightly jumbled way, but I needed to get some thoughts down and out there in order to try and make sense of them in my own head. I’ve been struggling the last few weeks to resolve a number of difficult conceptual issues the first chapter of my thesis resulted in. In particular, while I want to argue that radical democracy is best understood as a form of insurrectionary anarchism, I needed a more thoroughgoing conceptualisation of democracy in order to tie things together. But I think I’ve found a way to harmonise the various elements.

Carl Schmitt and Chantal Mouffe seem to largely agree on the definition of democracy as the identity of the ruler and the ruled. This identity consists in some form of substantive homogeneity or equality. But what Ranciere seems to add to this definition is precisely the inability to demonstrate the legitimacy of any ‘ruler’ over the ‘ruled’ which grounds democracy as a practice of becoming-equal, demonstrating equality as a practical political act of dissent. The previous definition – politics as an art of governing, of government – presupposes both ‘a mass to be managed and those who have the capacity to do it.’ Democracy, for Ranciere, “signals the radical absence of a common corporeality and of legitimate authority.” (Source) Part of the problem with any representative system (or ‘police order’), for Ranciere, is its inability to truly represent the social whole; there is always a ‘part which has no-part’, and which will (ideally) demonstrate its equality through acts of dissent.

Taking this on board, the argument I want to run can actually proceed quite smoothly. We can return to Deleuze and William E. Connolly with his emphasis on pluralism-as-process (not a static state of affairs), and instead think towards becoming-democratic-becoming-equal as an inherently insurrectionary act. If any ‘police order’ will necessarily fail to deliver on the promise of equality, then destroy police orders. In a certain sense, to engage in this radical political praxis is already to undergo a certain process of subjectivation as part of a collective political agency; it’s a veritable becoming-democratic-becoming-equal, coextensive and overlapping in the process itself.

And then the argument carries towards its natural conclusion in the central role of revolt and insurrection in an ongoing practice of becoming-democratic-becoming-equal (yes I need to find a more concise way of condensing these concepts!), through the concept of destitutive power (drawn from Tiqqun and Agamben) forming a natural conceptual link here.

Still much more to work on and iron out but I’m feeling a bit better now about where this project is going. Deleuze and Guattari will still play an important role here, but I think I need them to take a slight step back for this project to really cohere. Still rather daunting. Writing the first chapter wasn’t nearly as challenging as this is! Just got to buckle in I suppose.

Personal Philosophy Politics

Antagonism, Class, and the Real Movement

I’ve recently been considering where my politics now stand, in light of studying a range of theorists and schools of thought beyond what I had previously had the time or opportunity to consider. In particular, I’ve been fascinated by the work — on the one hand — of groups like Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee, and — on the other hand — Antonio Negri and his collaborative work with Michael Hardt. Despite Tiqqun’s clear distaste for Negri (to put it mildly), it’s illustrative that much of their work nevertheless functions only in and through the concepts which Negri provides us, particularly that of Empire and its relation to the biopolitical, the police state, civil war, etc. I don’t think their positions are as irreconcilable as might appear on the surface, particularly given that — their many analytical and rhetorical strengths aside — Tiqqun’s understanding of Marxism is disappointingly shallow.

At the core of what I’ve been trying to think through, and I think this is understood as an important problem by most of the contemporary left, is the relation between class and politics. There are also other issues which we will consider below. On the orthodox Marxist analysis, one’s class is a function of one’s position within the objective economic system, and can be reduced down to a relatively simple question: Must you sell your labour for a wage in order to survive? Of course, my characterisation is necessarily somewhat simplistic, even the most orthodox of Marxists recognise that difficulties endure in the petit-bourgeois, lumpenproletariat, etc. This is the question I have been rethinking.

One of the great virtues of Marxist theory is its central conviction that theory must be guided both by praxis and the world we really see before us. It’s the reflexivity of Marxist theory which marks it out as such a powerful tool of analysis; if the thesis is disconfirmed by empirical observation, the thesis must be eliminated or revised. This procedure was exemplified by Marx himself, both in the writing of Capital and, for example, in his analysis of the Paris Commune. Lukacs was correct therefore to consider orthodox Marxism a commitment to the method, rather than the specific conclusions, provided us by Marx. And it is in this sense that I think we — and by we, I mean Communists — need to take a rethinking of class quite seriously. This is far from a new assertion, of course, and I think we’re all quite tired of the unending stream of theoretical texts denouncing the inadequacy of Marxism in interpreting some radical new development in the development of Capitalism. And this is where Tiqqun, The Invisible Committee, Hardt and Negri enter the picture.

What Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee show, I think, is the inadequacy of a ‘class analysis’ reliant upon the orthodox Marxist conceptualisation of class; it brings back to the forefront the now somewhat unfashionable diagnoses of the havoc capitalism is wreaking upon human society and the individual; and that contemporary Communists need to shake off the last remnants of the notion that emancipation awaits only after the revolution which up-ends the class conflict by transforming the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie into the dictatorship of the proletariat. Beyond this, they are also — as anarchists — highly skeptical of the very notion of ‘seizing state power’, and distrustful of the insistence that ‘this time it will be different.’ I think we can also take from them a lesson to be attendant to the real, existing movements out there on the streets today and learning from them, not legislating in advance how they must act, how their praxis must conform to our ideas, etc. Let me rephrase one of the central points here: if we are to conceptualise antagonism within contemporary capitalist societies, a reliance upon the notion of ‘the working class’ will not get us very far. In their words,

Historical conflict no longer opposes two massive molar heaps, two classes — the exploited and the exploiters, the dominant and dominated, managers and workers — between which, in each individual case, it would be possible to differentiate. The front line no longer cuts through the middle of society; it now runs through each one of us…

In a sense, this is to overstate the case. Certainly they are right in diagnosing the way in which capital has penetrated to the very core of our subjectivities — the role of any political-economic regime in subjectivisation having been long understood already, of course. But their analysis in the text poses almost existential questions about the character of late-capitalist subjectivities – the profusion of anxiety, depression, and other mental conditions; the rugged individualism and endless incitement to self-improvement, efficiency, productivity, optimising your ‘free time’, and so on. Further, it does not seem that the antagonism between the dominant and the dominated has been in any meaningful sense weakened; if anything, it has continued to grow in intensity over the preceding decades. What has changed is the composition of the classes involved in this antagonism. And this is perhaps where I find Negri and Hardt most useful.

Class remains the determining factor at work in the antagonism which plays out across the social field today. But Hardt & Negri provide a reconceptualisation of what class has to be understood as today. The Multitude (their concept) is an irreducible multiplicity in the properly Deleuzian sense; it is the molar mass of all those exploited and dominated by capital and who, in multiple forms, push back against it. Where there is power, there is resistance. It is a multiplicity – it is composed not just of the traditional working class but feminists, people of colour, activists fighting against anti-immigrant violence, sexual violence, exploitation of workers, racism, anti-ableism, etc. And it is in the nature of an irreducible multiplicity that these ‘axes’ cannot be reduced to each other. We cannot understand capitalism without understanding how it’s supported by, and reinforces, patriarchy, white supremacy, white supremacy without seeing how capitalism requires it, etc. And this needn’t be resolved into the usual liberal identity politics in which criticism of programmes for universal healthcare are lambasted as ‘insufficiently intersectional.’ It is a problem, as Hardt points out, the diagnosis of which goes back to Rosa Luxemburg and even further back still; as Luxemburg, Iris Young and pointed out, what is needed is not an external solidarity between Communists and Feminists, and so on; but an internal solidarity which fully recognises the necessary co-constitution of their struggles. This is still, unfortunately, an insufficient characterisation of their long and arduous work filling out the notion of the multitude, but it must do for now.

There are a number of points across these thinkers which strike me as persuasive and important. The first is the mutual refusal to lecture actual social movements on how they ought to organise their struggles, the proper objectives, methodological frameworks, tactics in pursuit of the ends, etc. We should learn from these movements, not lecture them. Doubtless they were and are flawed, but so is any movement. It should not be forgotten that, for all of the horrors which later ensued, the Russian Revolution was – as China Mieville points out – in many ways sparked by Russian feminists marching in the streets on International Women’s Day. The test of your theory is its practical results – for Marxists, or anyone indebted to it, this must be central. There can be no clear separation between theory and practice. And in a world, today, where Leninists sit on the sidelines, in ever-dwindling numbers, filled with nostalgia for the past, jaded and bitter at the clear indifference in which they are regarded by ‘the working class’, this must be the decisive test for the question of whether the Leninist analysis still holds purchase on, is still adequate to, contemporary capitalism.

If you’re wondering where the resistance to capitalism is, you’ve got your eyes closed. It’s already there, out on the streets. The Real Movement is visible, out in force, denouncing racism, police violence, sexual violence, exploitation of workers, anti-migrant violence, authoritarianism, inequality, ecological collapse. You just have to open your eyes and see it. They don’t need lecturing about the proper role of the vanguard, or how – if they just saw clearly – they’d realise not just that class is the overdetermining factor but that the working class is the only possible agent of true change. What we need to do is take a step back and learn from them. One of the critiques levelled against the so-called ‘New Social Movements’ is the lack of meaningful, lasting change, what Srnicek and Williams deride as a ‘folk politics’ obsessed with nostalgia, petit-bourgeois values and an almost neurotic obsession with the relation between means and ends. We can meaningfully ask two questions in response to this, however: First, to what extent Marxist-Leninism has been able to meaningfully and lastingly overturn the global development of capitalism and its destructive consequences; Second, whether the technocratic social democracy proposed by Left Accelerationists represents any meaningful departure from what we’ve already seen over the hegemonic neoliberal consensus of the past few decades.

The Real Movement is not simply protesting, in a futile demonstration of its own political impotence. This is to misunderstand the entire character of revolt. Aside from the assumption that protest itself is meaningless and unimportant, it relies upon a near-deliberate ignorance of the ways in which non-electoral strategies operate. These movements which we see today – against everything from police violence and racism to anti-immigrant rhetoric, sexual violence and the changing role of education – are setting up communities, support networks, reading groups, sit-ins and takeovers, redistributing resources, providing legal aid and healthcare, protecting public and common spaces. And what has to be understood is the transformative elements contained within these forms of dissent.If there is to be the possibility of any Communism worthy of its name, it must embody, protect and further what it is that we hold in common, against the forces of a Neoliberal Capitalism which increasingly emphasises precisely what is “unique” to each of we entrepreneurial individuals, but which is really nothing “unique” at all. And if we are to form any meaningful praxis which takes us closer to that goal, we first need to stop seeing it as a goal to be achieved in the sense that before the revolution we had capitalism, after the revolution we have Communism. What is needed is the intensive multiplication and proliferation of non-capitalist, of Communist, social relations between individuals and groups; perhaps what we could call groupuscules. And it precisely in the commons and in the public spaces which so many of these movements champion, defend, and weaponise that these relations can be nurtured, developed and broadened. The process of engaging in these kinds of processes – of staging an occupation, or joining a picket line, volunteering at street kitchens, and so on – is always already to act against the prevailing capitalist social relations. If Capitalist domination cuts across us, then it is through acts such as these that an anti-capitalist collective subjectivity can be formed.


COVID-19 and Late Capitalism

Now seems like as good a time as any to collate some of my overall thoughts on the enormous political developments of the last month. I want to talk about the political implications of COVID-19 in the context of British politics today as well as the direction of the Labour Party and the future of socialism in Britain. What follows are really just a collection of interrelated thoughts I wanted to put down in writing rather than keep them jumbled up in my head.

Giorgio Agamben has embroiled himself in no small degree of controversy for his article on the Coronavirus. Some of the backlash has been well-deserved, in particular for the way he entirely misunderstands the intersubjective elements of this pandemic. Agamben writes:

Other human beings, as in the plague described in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel, are now seen solely as possible spreaders of the plague whom one must avoid at all costs and from whom one needs to keep oneself at a distance of at least a meter.

This is an uncharacteristically poor analysis by Agamben. What the public’s response to Coronavirus has demonstrated more than anything is that Capitalism really has failed to totally stamp out any sense of community, mutual aid and solidarity between us all. The distance most of us are keeping from each other is by and large not for our own safety (many of us are unlikely to die even if we do contract it), but for the safety of others, of the loved ones we know and the strangers we don’t. Thousands of brave members of the public have volunteered to assist the NHS in coping with the Coronavirus pandemic, risking their own lives for the common good. People who may not have even known each other before, despite living in relatively close proximity, are now running errands for each other, delivering vital supplies to the particularly vulnerable unable to risk leaving their homes. I will talk more about this below.

But Agamben does get a few important points right, and I think it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Agamben is absolutely correct to draw our attention to the potential dangers hidden within the response of many western governments. We must remember with Foucault that “not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad.” Agamben’s work draws on two major influences: Foucault and Carl Schmitt, reworking them in profound and novel ways, and one of the lessons he draws from Schmitt is that every liberal democracy retains the ever-present possibility of dictatorship. For Schmitt, it is a priori impossible to legislate in advance for the arrival of a state of emergency (such as the Coronavirus), precisely because it is part-and-parcel of a state of emergency that it cannot be properly planned, prepared for or foreseen. The result is that there is always the possibility of an invocation of a state of emergency, in which the normal constitutional rules are suspended in the name of defending the existence of the state and the people over whom it exercises its power. Drawing on Foucault’s notion of Biopolitics, Agamben has long been interested in this character of liberalism, its bio-management of the health and security of populations and the way in which states of exception are invoked and maintained, particularly in his superb analysis of the United States government post-9/11.

Agamben is correct to point out that we must be very cautious about the extent to which we are authorising an unprecedented extension of the power of the state. One of Agamben’s central preccoupations in his historical analysis is the extent to which a government can invoke a perpetual state of emergency (9/11 leading to the ‘war on terror’, etc.) in order to legitimise a permanent state of emergency, where the state of emergency becomes the new norm. And one point he draws our attention to is that Coronavirus is dangerous in this regard precisely because it is not only invisible but in, between, and among us. It is interior. And it is therefore all the more easy for a government to invoke its absent presence, its future return, as a basis for suspending the normal order. Agamben is quite badly wrong in much of what he says, particularly the severity of the danger posed by Coronavirus, but in this he is astute.

There has been a lot written recently about Capitalist Realism, and to this I want to add only a few thoughts of my own. Matt over at Xenogothic, as usual, has provided some excellent analysis recently. We can start with perhaps two questions: What does this all mean for British politics, and for global capitalism more broadly? And by way of responding to my own question with a non-answer, I think it is probably too early to tell, and I think history shows, thinking back to the 2008 financial crash and Occupy Wall Street, how resilient and malleable capitalism really is. This is of course not a new realisation, it was in fact one of Marx’s central pieces of analysis and one of the characteristics he both despised and admired in capitalism. We find much the same in Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis. I think that proclaiming the death of capitalism is therefore premature. But I think a bit more than this can be said at this time.

The first is that in this moment, more than any other, we must hold close to the understanding that history is constituted by a series of open (virtual) possibilities. No serious leftist thinker has held to a teleological model of history, and in fact neither did Marx himself as any reader should be aware. We must not therefore conclude that this global health crisis (which as soon as it subsides will dovetail into a perhaps even more severe economic crisis) heralds the death either of capitalism or even of merely its contemporary neoliberal form. I suspect that what we are soon approaching is a once-in-a-generation moment – a genuinely open possibility – about the future of our species.

It is quite possible that the almost unprecedented levels of government intervention and spending mobilised in response to this global crisis will act as a stark moment of realisation for the west, shaking off the mental shackles imposed upon us by neoliberal hegemony which tell us not only that the government shouldn’t intervene in the economy (because it will invariably make things worse), but that it can’t, that the money and resources simply are not there. It turns out that Britain does not have to accept that there must be rising millions of homeless on our streets. Within a matter of days, we managed to find temporary housing for pretty much every homeless person in the country. It can be done. The resources are there. What is needed is the political will to commit to it. And it has also served as a wake-up call to those who have been blind to the deterioration of our National Health Service and social security infrastructure; now, those who always thought of themselves as ‘above it’, are forced to rely on a system which they either consciously or unconsciously voted to shred. We might, finally, begin to have debates about Universal Basic Income, for example, as well as the state of social housing and social care. We might.

But is is just as possible, as the health crisis subsides and the economic crisis deepens, that an even fiercer austerity mindset might return as the hegemonic ideology of our times, right at the moment at which it has begun to be most resoundingly challenged. “We spent everything we had during the emergecy, and we were right to; but now we all have to tighten our belts and get on with paying back the debt in case we need to do so again” might be the kind of thing we hear with increasing frequency. We simply don’t know which way it could go at this point. It could genuinely represent a clean break with neoliberalism, and I hope that it does, but we must remember that this is not fixed in stone. If we want to make use of this moment in order to effect far more radical change, we will have to work for it.

Even a response like the above opens opportunities for the left. Where should the money come from to pay down the debts, and how should it be raised? Should we not recognise that a consistent model of funding better prepares us for future crises in the future, and better recognises the dignity and value of the workers consistently underpaid in our health and social services? How should our welfare system operate in the future in order to better deal with not just crises like this but also the technological revolution of automation and deep AI? Put simplistically: The left needs to be the clever party here. We need to develop and articulate a coherent and comprehensible model of the future and win the argument that we are best placed to make it work for the many, not the few.

The important thing to bear in mind that what might well end up happening is simply swapping out one form of capitalism for another. And, as has been pointed out recently, there is a difference between your politics becoming hegemonic and your ideas becoming hegemonised by the dominant power. The two are very different. The latter is the true risk right now: That policy proposals from the left as part of a broader vision of overthrowing capitalism are recuperated by the right in order to stabilise and shore up support for capitalism. And we are seeing it here in Britain under the Boris Johnson government – ideas proposed by the left are being adopted by the government both as a response to the virus and on their own merit, but we should not conclude that this is a victory for the left. What it really represents is a disarming of the left in the service of an ever-malleable global capitalism. If capitalism needs to expand its welfare state or institute basic incomes in order to survive, it will do. None of this threatens its fundamentals. That makes this time, in a political context, particularly difficult and dangerous for the left. The risk is that the radical democratic socialist movement ends up being entirely hegemonised by a pragmatic and ‘loose’ right.

I wanted to finish up by offering some initial thoughts on the early direction of the Labour Party here in Britain. The truth of the matter is that I’ve long been deeply pessimistic about our future. My first political memory was of watching David Cameron and Nick Clegg walk into Downing Street. I joined the Labour Party a few months before the general election of 2015 when Ed Miliband was leader, and in the last month of the election genuinely came to believe that he could change things for the better, despite his earlier hesitancy and half-measures. We suffered an awful defeat. I voted, hesitantly, for Remain in the 2016 referendum; I have no real love for the European Union, but in my view for Leave to win at that moment would be a victory for the far-right and permanently damage our country. We lost that one too. In 2017, we came within a hair’s breadth of defeating the Conservatives, but ultimately lost. In 2019 we suffered the worst electoral defeat of my lifetime. It felt like being punched in the stomach.

And with every year which passes with Labour in opposition, the climate crisis worsens. We are now staring down the barrel of another five years of an emboldened Conservative government with no interest in pursuing radical changes to tackle climate change. This is the central political issue of our time because it fundamentally threatens the future of humanity. So despite my personal politics which would ideally go far beyond what Corbyn was proposing, I’ve been mulling over Starmer’s new leadership and where the direction the party might go next. And frankly, at this stage, I think if we can elect a progressive social democratic party with a very strong climate change plan at the centre of its political vision, with a leader who is very happy to work with socialists and to implement socialist policies in the right circumstances, I can live with that for now. I’m relatively optimistic about Starmer’s early moves: he’s appointed a mixture of highly intelligent and qualified democratic socialists and social democrats to the front bench, begun to put an end to the antisemitism crisis and professionalise the party’s operation.

But tackling climate change must be central to any policy platform in the future. We cannot back down from the policies elaborated in Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution and the left must keep the pressure on him not to renege on his commitments. Such a revolution must fundamentally challenge the assumptions and logic which underpin our capitalist system – production for profit; endless surpluses; economic instability compounded and intensified by regular internal and external crises, and so on. Nothing about what governments across the west are enacting right now fundamentally challenges capitalism. The left needs to give up its idea of capitalism’s fragility or its fixed form. What is specific about capitalism its capacity to endlessly reform itself in the face of radical critique. It is almost as if radical critique finds articulation, capitalism has ‘precuperated’ such a critique. Here Debord was perhaps not pessimistic enough: The left finds itself continually disarmed in the face of such a system almost before the critique has even been articulated. Thus Laclau’s system of articulating irreconcilable demands by a populist left appears implausible, relying as it does on the notion that a sufficient array of demands cannot be met by the dominant hegemonic force. If we have learned anything from studying the history of the last two centuries, it is that no such array of demands has yet been articulated. Perhaps that may be yet to come.

Coronavirus, global capitalism and climate change are interlinked processes forming multiple resonance machines accelerating each on further. Every major pandemic of the last few decades has its origins in animal exploitation. Animal exploitation is one of the key drivers of climate change, and the logic which underpins the exploitation of non-human animals is the same logic which underpins our exploitation of the environment and of various human groups as well. Any radical politics has to understand and confront these interlinked processes. We can now see just how fragile the global economy is to the violent emergence of any external destabilising forces, even those which were birthed by global capitalism itself. What might emerge from this chaos is difficult to discern but if the left wants a future beyond capitalism it will have to fight for it; that means engaging electorally and outside the usual institutional democratic processes. Neither in themselves are enough, but we cannot do without either.