Plaza – Riot – Commune
We are the generation of the abandoned, the betrayed. Tossed up on the shores of the present by 150 years of failed insurrection, by the shipwreck of the workers’ movement, the failure of a hundred political projects. But it is not only our once-upon-a-time friends who have departed. Today, even our enemies flee from us, even capital abandons us: no more its minimum promises, the right to be exploited, the right to sell one’s labor power. Abandoned, we greet the world with utter abandon. There is no longer any possible adequacy of means and ends, no way of subordinating our actions to the rational or the practical. The present age of austerity means that even the most meager of demands require the social democrats to pick up bricks. Betrayed by democracy, betrayed by the technocrats of socialism, betrayed by the dumb idealism of anarchy, betrayed by the stolid fatalism of the communist ultraleft. We are not the 99%. We are not a fucking percentage at all. We do not count. If we have any power, it is because we are the enemies of all majority, enemies of „the people.“ As the old song goes, we are nothing and must become everything.
Though it is a key characteristic of capitalism that each generation of its victims has, in its way, considered its persistence beyond a few decades unlikely if not preposterous, the difference between us and them is that in our case it just happens to be true. Now, not even capital’s footservants can paint a convincing portrait of a future based upon markets and wages – all the sci-fi dystopias of flying cars and robot servants seem truly ridiculous. No, the future only presents as ruin, apocalypse, burning metal in the desert. It is easier to imagine the end of life on earth than our own old age.
This is why anxieties over the implicit statism of anti-austerity struggles are baseless. With the exception of a few benighted activists and media ideologues, everyone understands quite well that the Keynesian card was played long ago, blown on wars and bailouts, the victim of its own monstrous success. There will be no rebirth of the welfare state, no „reindustrialization“ of society. This much is obvious: if there is an expansion of the state, it will be a proto-fascist austerity state. Nor is there any longer a „Left“ in any meaningful sense, as a force that desires to manage the existing world on different terms, in the name of the workers or the people. Those radicals who, tired of the weakness of the loyal opposition, imagine themselves called upon to „destroy the left“ find that their very existence is predicated upon this old, vanished enemy. There is no Left left: only the great dispirited mass of the center, some wild and misdirected antagonism at the fringes.
The hopelessness of deflecting the state from its current course; the realization that even a slight reform of the system would require collective violence of a near revolutionary intensity; the attendant awareness that we would be idiots to go that distance and yet stop short of revolution – all of this gives many anti-austerity struggles a strange desperation and intensity. Our hope is to be found in this very hopelessness, in the fact that, in the current cycle of struggles, means have entirely dissociated from ends. Tactics no longer match with their stated objectives. In France, in response to a proposed change in the retirement age, high school students barricade their schools; roving blockades confuse the police; rioting fills city center after city center. In Britain and Italy, university struggles recruit tens of thousands of youth who have no hope of attending the university, nor any interest in doing so for that matter. There is no longer any possibility of a political calculus that matches ideas with tactics, thinking with doing. Do we suppose that French children are really concerned about what will happen to them once they are ready to retire? Does any young person expect the current social order to last that long? No, they are here to hasten things forward, hasten things toward collapse. Because it is easier to imagine the end of the world than retirement. Because anything is better than this.
For the neo-Leninist philosophes who build their cults in the shells of the dying universities, such an impossibility of lining up means with ends is nothing but a barrier or block. Where is the revolutionary program in the Egyptian revolution, they ask, where is the program in the streets of Britain or Greece? Who will discipline these bodies for their final assault on the palaces and citadels? For such thinkers, only an idea can guarantee the efficacy of these bodies. Only an idea – the idea of communism, as some say – can make of these bodies a proper linkage between means and ends. But communism is not an idea nor an idealism – it means freeing bodies from their subordination to abstractions. Thankfully, we are skittish, faithless and flighty people. We have trouble listening. For us, communism will be material or it will be nothing. It will be a set of immediate practices, immediate satisfactions, or nothing. If we find discipline and organization, it will come from what we do, not what we think.
By „idea“ the philosophes mean something like „the Party.“ They intend to make themselves and their ideas mean, as structure and social form. They intend to cement the old pact between the intelligentsia and the workers’ movement. But there is no intelligentsia anymore and there certainly is no workers’ movement to speak of. The entire structure of duty and obligation – Christian in origin – upon which the classical programmatic parties were built no longer exists, because capital no longer needs morality for helpmeet. There is acting for ourselves; there is acting with others; but there is no sustained acting for another, out of obligation.
Our indiscipline means that among political ideas only the one idea which is, by its very nature, determined to remain an idea, an ideal, can gain any purchase here: democracy. From Tunisia to Egypt, from Spain to Greece, from Madison to Wall Street, again and again, the „movement of the squares“ buckles under the dead weight of this shibboleth. Democracy, the name for the enchantment of the people by its own image, by its potential for endless deferral. Democracy, a decision-making process become political ontology, such that the form itself, the form of the decision, becomes its own content. We democratically decide to be democratic! The people chooses itself!
In the present era – the era of the austerity state and the unemployment economy – radical democracy finds its ideal locus in the metropolitan plaza or square. The plaza is the material embodiment of its ideals – an blank place for a blank form. Through the plaza, radical democracy hearkens back to its origin myth, the agora, the assembly-places of ancient Greece which also served as marketplaces (such that the phrase „I shop“ and „I speak in public“ were nearly identical). These plazas are not, however, the buzzing markets filled with economic and social transaction, but clean-swept spaces, vast pours of concrete and nothingness, perhaps with a few fountains here or there. These are spaces set aside by the separation of the „political“ from the economy, the market. Nowhere is this more clear than in the most recent episode of the „movement of squares“ – Occupy Wall Street – which attempted, meekly and rather insincerely, to occupy the real agora, the real space of exchange, but ended up pushed into a small, decorative park on the outskirts of Wall Street, penned by police. This is what building the new world in the shell of the old means today – an assembly ringed by cops.
If there is hope in these manifestations, it lies in the forms of mutual aid that exist there, the experimentation people undertake in providing for their own needs. Already, we see how the occupations are forced against their self-imposed limits, brought into conflict with the police, despite the avowed pacificism of the participants. The plaza occupations – with all their contradictions – are one face of the present dissociation of means from ends. Or rather, they present a situation in which means are not so much expelled as sublimated, present as the object of a vague symbolization, such that the gatherings come to pre-enact or symbolize or prefigure some future moment of insurrection. At their worst, they are vast machines of deferral. At their best, they force their participants toward actually seizing what they believe they are entitled to merely want.
How far we are from Egypt, the putative start of the sequence. There, the initial assembly was an act of symbolic violence, decidedly so, which everyone knew would open onto an encounter with the state and its force. And yet, even there, the separation from the economy – from the ways in which our needs are satisfied – remained inscribed into the revolution from the start. In other words, the Egyptian insurrection was not deflected to the sphere of the political but started there to begin with. And all of the other episodes in the so-called „movement of squares“ repeat this primary dislocation, whether they remain hamstrung by pacifism and democratism, as in Spain, or press their demands in material form, as in Greece.
This brings the plaza occupations into relation not only with the entire development of orthodox Marxism, from Lenin through Mao, which places the conquest of state power front and center, but also its apparent opposite in this historical moment: the riots of Athens and London and Oakland, which, bearing the names of Oscar Grant, Alexis Grigoropoulos, or Mark Duggan, treat the police and state power as both cause and effect, provocation and object of rage. Though the looting which always accompanies such eruptions points the way to a more thorough expropriation, these riots, even though they seem the most immediate of antagonistic actions, are also bound by a kind of symbolization, the symbolization of the negative, which says what it wants through a long litany, in letters of fire and broken glass, of what it does not want: not this, not that. We’ve seen their limits already, in Greece –even burning all of the banks and police stations was not enough. Even then, they came into a clearing, a plaza, swept clean by their own relentless negations, where negation itself was a limit. What then? What will we do then? How do we continue?
Between the plaza and the riot, between the most saccharine affirmation and the blackest negation – this is where we find ourselves. Two paths open for us: each one, in its way, a deflection from the burning heart of matter. On the one hand, the endless process of deliberation that must finally, in its narrowing down to a common denominator, arrive at the only single demand possible: a demand for what already is, a demand for the status quo. On the other hand, the desire that has no object, that finds nothing in the world which answers its cry of annihilation.
One fire dies out because it extinguishes its own fuel source. The other because it can find no fuel, no oxygen. In both cases, what is missing is a concrete movement toward the satisfaction of needs outside of wage and market, money and compulsion. The assembly becomes real, loses its merely theatrical character, once its discourse turns to the satisfaction of needs, once it moves to taking over homes and buildings, expropriating goods and equipment. In the same way, the riot finds that truly destroying the commodity and the state means creating a ground entirely inhospitable to such things, entirely inhospitable to work and domination. We do this by facilitating a situation in which there is, quite simply, enough of what we need, in which there is no call for „rationing“ or „measure,“ no requirement to commensurate what one person takes and what another contributes. This is the only way that an insurrection can survive, and ward off the reimposition of market, capital and state (or some other economic mode based upon class society and domination). The moment we prove ourselves incapable of meeting the needs of everyone – the young and the old, the healthy and infirm, the committed and the uncommitted– we create a situation where it is only a matter of time before people will accept the return of the old dominations. The task is quite simple, and it is monstrously difficult: in a moment of crisis and breakdown, we must institute ways of meeting our needs and desires that depend neither on wages nor money, neither compulsory labor nor administrative decision, and we must do this while defending ourselves against all who stand in our way.
Research & Destroy, 2011