#10: How do politics begin? Part II
Political action consists in showing as political what was viewed as “social,” “economic,” or “domestic.” It consist in blurring the boundaries. It is what happen whenever “domestic agents – workers or women, for instant – reconfigure their quarrel as a quarrel concerning the common, that is concerning what place belongs or does not belong to it and who is able or unable to make enunciations and demonstration about the common.
It should be clear therefore that there is politics when there is a disagreement about what is politics, when the boundary separating the political form the social or the public form the domestic is put into question. Politics is a way of re-partioning the political from the non-political. This is why it generally occurs “out of place,” in a place which was not supposed to be political […]
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“Poor Gramsci, communist and militant before all else, tortured and killed by fascism and ultimately by the bosses who financed fascism-poor Gramsci was given the gift of being considered the founder of a strange notion of hegemony that leaves no place for a Marxian politics. We have to defend ourselves against such generous gifts!”
(Negri and Hardt on sententious interpretations of Gramsci’s theories, “Empire”, Cambridge, Mass.: Havard University Press, 2001, 452)
Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) is one of Marxism’s most important political theorists. For many decades, his theoretical legacy has been an important argument in the left’s strategic debates all over the world. The name of this Italian communist has become a “floating signifier” of sorts, capable of endowing “revolutionary” legitimacy even to those interpretations of his ideas that he himself would have called revisionist. Obviously, there is no way to avoid a procedure of historization: in other words, it makes sense to look at the historical context of his theoretical practice in order to understand and use his ideas adequately.
A Moscow apartment. 1 PM. Alexei is sitting in the kitchen, drinking coffee. Oxana comes out of the bedroom with her eyes half-shut.
Oxana: Hi, Alexey. Listen, I don’t feel very well. And I also have a vague sense that something happened last night. Maybe it was a dream I can’t remember? Or you know, there are moments of rest and leisure when nothing happens but it seems like something in the world has turned upside down?
Alexei: I know what you mean. But seriously, Oxana, you really don’t remember anything?
Oxana: No, Alexei.
Alexei:You really don’t remember how you threw a volume of Cicero at me last night? How you accused me of hating you, of suppressing your talents? You don’t remember how you cried for an hour?
Oxana: Oh wow…
Judging by the results of the Social Forum, we consider ourselves a SOVIET MOVEMENT in two senses: first of all, we are for SOVIETS (councils) as a form of self-organization for the protesting masses and the population at large, since the soviets, a form of self-organization that arose 100 years ago, entails both self-government and popular rule; we are Soviet people in terms of our values (social justice, equal rights, solidarity, and the desire to restore the connections between people in “post-Soviet space”.) We are part of a SOVIET RENNAISCANCE FROM BELOW, for which there is a real demand, and whose basis can be found in the self-organization of people into soviets and the rebirth of those portions of Soviet culture that have not yet been “finished off” completely.
These two multitudes almost correspond to one another. Almost. For one group, the self-organization of protest is more important, while the other find it more important to revive the Soviet idea as an idea of a society that could provide an alternative to capitalism. The soviets lie at the core of this idea, but not only as units of protest, but as massive self-organization.
To us, it is important not to lose either of these multitudes, and to bring them together on the unified field of the SOVIET MOVEMENT (A MOVEMENT OF SOVIETS FOR A SOVIET RENNAISCANCE).
A. Shubin, May 2005
Fragment of the discussion on the Russian Social Forum’s mailing list
A WINDUP CLOCK…
…DETONATOR OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
There is a distinction between fear and terror.
Fear is an alarm in the face of danger, it incites a reaction.
Terror, in contrast, is a different experience; it paralyzes those who experience it.
Terror becomes internalized and is more effective than any prison.
It confines us to living with panic as a lodger and provokes suspicious visions on the sight of what is foreign.
The paranoid grimaces of the neighbour turn into an everyday theatricality.
When the night overlaps with the day: a circle of stars over a blue background
Time stops after the explosion.
A confusing setting
Something is happening with the calendar. A page is missing, silence.
Then, stained pages that repeat themselves year after year
like the structure of an unfinished simphony.
Something has changed in the air and under the ground:
In the subway stations men in black, dogs,
Sounds that explode from mobile phones.
They walk among us, they watch us.
The dogs come closer, they sniff the luggage.
The men in black keep on walking.
Now they head toward a group of foreigners that is us.
What are they looking for?
Mobile phones, prepaid cards, sports bags, video tapes?
NEXT STOP: DEATH
Behind a desk one can see a map of the planet punctured with pins with different coloured heads.
The image of the map resembles a doll used to cause something on a third party from a distance.
Like those figures used in rituals by “sects of religious fanatics” or by groups that use “witchcraft.”
The room is now empty.
The map on the wall is still punctured.
The objectives, the targets, points on a map…
The world remains restless, while enormous bars rise around each being.
A windup mechanism that will activate itself at a given time.
The frailty of life in the face of movement becomes tangible.
Here, while the new societies prepare to raise old walls
with cheap labour and information bricks.
The globe turns around its axis, trying clumsily to dodge the clock’s hands.
BANG: ¡Trrori$t$ !
We are all Terrorists: That is the image.
The figure of “terrorism” used as an element to justify war, genocide and repression against peoples.
A concept, an image that gives visibility to the crime of being “suspicious of everything,” and criminalizes in a uniform
and generalized way non-Western societies and the regime’s opponents.
In the “War against Terror” anything goes: razing houses to the ground and despising religious beliefs,
torturing the “enemy,” humiliating them and cutting short any possibility of free life.
Murdering somebody for “carrying a face”: shooting and seeing who it was only afterwards, turning that into an image.
A unilateral, totalitarian, sensationalist, and effective image.
The mass media weave an intersubjective network where insecurity is a war of all against all.
Now simultaneously all of us read the same information, we all watch the same image.
The upcoming Wars cover the future with a cloak of darkness.
The tanks thirsty for fuel advance through the night carrying with them all the cultural stigmata from that “other side” of the world.
The new lines of expansion of the map of Empire will be written with blood and petroleum. Images of war and terrorism, flooding the streets, bombarding the screens, entering
homes, controlling the neuralgic points of the planet, mobility, transportation, communication. The message is in other languages but we can still read it: a terrorist image.
That is why we proclaim the need for a critical intervention into social reality and the present political context. An international coordination of poetic-political actions that subtly
put into evidence the mechanisms for forming the stereotype of the “terrorist enemy.”
To look for the social negative, to question and put in crisis, from the terrain of the symbolic and from artistic-political action, the use and manipulation of the concept of
“terrorism” for dominating and harrassing entire societies.
In the re-ordering of the Planet, the pieces are moved with ambitious precision. The Empire advances seeking to dominate every existing market, launching battles for
strategic territorial spaces, and natural resources, but also seeking to impose Cultural domination at a global level. A single symbolic system, a single Culture constructed by
the global market, is the future of this threat.
But this will be another battle, a battle for Cultural emancipation.
The liberation of thought, the domination of an alien economic, political, and cultural system, the marketing of incomprehensible signs and subliminal messages that bombard
us from the screens every day…
…The time has come to struggle for freedom..
We will do it with our poetic weapons
And with more real ones if necessary!
ETCETERA… is a collective founded by Federico Zukrfeld and Loreto Guzman at 1998 in Buenos Aires. Members are artists from fields such as poetry, drama, visual arts, music and political activists. ETCETERA is the commitment and presence in social conflicts and participates with its works, manifestos and actions in the protest demonstrations.
How could I ever betray to scandalmongers –
Again the frost smells of apples –
That marvelous pledge to the Fourth Estate
And vows solemn enough for tears?
Osip Mandelstam, “1 January 1924”
Politics begin with affects and passions. Affect is the childhood of theory. This is why I will begin with my childhood. (To avoid any possible confusion: the autobiographical tone of these notes is not dictated by nostalgia, but motivated by the desire to use my “personal case” to clarify what I daresay is a common logic, a pressure irreducible to class interests, which makes us turn to the Marxist tradition. This is actually where the epigraph comes from. Mandelstam wrote this poem directly after Lenin’s death; by “vows solemn enough for tears”, he means Herzen and Orgaev on the Sparrow Hills (cf. Herzen’s “My Past and Thoughts”) but also Stalin’s vow on the grave of the world proletariat’s leader.)
Edward W. Said once stated that “what one feels is lacking in Foucault is something resembling Gramsci’s analysis of hegemony, of historical blocs and given relationships as a whole, constructed in accordance with the perspective of a politically active individual for whom the description of fascinating power mechanisms never becomes a substitute for the effort made to transform power relationships in society.” [E. W. Said: The World, the Text and the Critic, Cambridge (Mass) 1983].
If a reading of Gramsci in the light of current challenges is possible today, it is one that is able to relocate the general theory of the working class struggle to within a philosophical discussion of sovereignty and the paradigm of power in itself – the logic behind its construction and legitimisation, its sphere of influence and operation, and its complexity – and therefore in contrast with every reductionist theory of power as a mechanism of the dominant class according to the classical Marxist tradition. However, such a reading does not have to renounce the right to present itself an operational discourse, a theory to be used both for and in practice, one that does not limit itself to analysing and interpreting power, but works to change or negate it by means of political action.
In post-Soviet intellectual and political space, the conception of multitude as a new form of social subjectivity has hardly been very fortunate. The problems in its reception begin with the very translation of the term itself: in the Russian edition of Negri and Hardt’s “Empire,” “multitudes” is mistranslated as “masses,” when this term was actually introduced, among other things, to mark an important difference in relation to the very masses it now invokes!
It is also surprising to see that “Empire” has received such disparaging reviews from authors otherwise internationally known for their progressive views. For instance, in a rather irate review of “Empire,” Boris Kagarlitsky continues to apply the inaccurate term of “masses”: “From time to time, some kind…of abstract ‘masses’ appear on the pages of this book. We know little more about these ‘masses’ than about the absolute ideas of ancient philosophy” . This seems somewhat strange because Kagarlitsky himself has developed an exotic theory on the “revolt of the middle class”, connecting its revolutionary potential with the crisis of the social state and the development of new information technologies. However, Kagarlitsky hardly goes to the same lengths to construct new concepts as do Negri and Hardt. Furthermore, his figure of the “middle class”, no doubt, is heir to the category of the “people” as a unitary political body, whose predicate can be found in the state. In the early 20th century, the concept of the people-sovereign was carried over from the obsolescent plane of “political theology” to the socio-economic plane. A displacement of the same type also formed the political figure of the “middle class” as the basis of the late capitalist state. But is it really possible to recode this hybrid notion so that it might take the place of the (proletarian) “hegemon” in a new anti-capitalist strategy? Even if such doubts arise concerning Kagarlitsky’s thinking, the general vector of his theory still runs in the same direction as that of Italian Marxist theorists in their search for subjectivity under the conditions of post-Fordist capitalism, which, perhaps, is why his rejection of Negri and Hardt’s work with the Spinozean term of “multitude” seems somewhat peculiar.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri warn the reader, in the preface to Multitude: War and Democracy in the age of Empire, “this is a philosophical book…do not expect [it] to answer the question, What is to be done?” Despite this warning, however, that aching and persistent question hangs over their argument for the rest of the book. If Hardt and Negri’s central premise is correct, and the living alternative to Empire is now the multitude, this raises – as quickly as a reader of philosophical books can remind them of thesis eleven – a familiar question: does the concept of the multitude help illuminate how to bring to life this alternative? Or, to put it more directly, in the face of the war, brutality and injustice of Empire, what is to be done?
But of course Hardt and Negri’s reluctance to answer this question is very understandable. As they point out in their previous book Empire, it took the Paris Commune for Marx to develop his understanding of revolution, surely we need a 21st century revolutionary outbreak before we can begin to describe how the multitude will organize itself to create a new society. The one inkling they provide us with is the global justice movement which, according to Negri “in social terms the multitude represented at Genoa [at the G8 demonstrations] the first full representation of the new layer of precarious workers in “social” labour produced by the revolution of post-Fordism.”
First the question should move from the passive to the positive – to ‘What do we do?’ even to ‘What are we doing?’ Lenin could use the passive form, he could assume an army of followers moving along the reasonably well mapped-out road of socialism. Having neither armies nor road nowadays, the passive question indicates nothing more than armchair theorising. […] We can’t answer the question – ‘what do we do?’ – can’t even deal with it in any meaningful way until we build axes of community and of solidarity from ourselves, through our lives, concomitant with our work. Building structures in which we can communicate and ask these questions – not just of myself or yourself, but to a society of others. For the moment, what we do is to build these structures and structure ourselves within them. Build these relationships within our lives so that we’ll be able to ask this question in a meaningful way – What is to be done? David Landy, Tampere, Finland
Wh– question. Interrogative. Allows speaker to find out more information about topic. Wh- interrogative clauses often followed by to-infinitives with a covert subject.