The Wreck of the Plaza
In an epoch characterized by disequilibria political and economic, none has been more perplexing than the inability to match means with ends. Everywhere, violent eruptions find no demand or objective around which to cohere, while struggles for the most minor of reforms burn with revolutionary intensity. Either the means overrrun their ends, or they find no end at all. In Turkey and Brazil, demonstrations over a change in the price of transit, or the development of a city park, provoke violent conflicts of an almost insurrectionary intensity. In France, teenagers barricade their schools against the withdrawal of a pension that is as yet fifty years off. Any pretext, any provocation can become the adventitious occasion for mobilization of antagonism that finds no outlet, no name or program. Do we suppose that French kids 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? What can it mean when a .20 real increase in transit fares becomes the occasion for petrol bomb attacks on the National Assembly, when a conflict over a half acre of green space sets in motion a national uprising involving millions? What can be glimpsed through this gap between tactics and strategy, discourse and praxis, between the slogans and signage of a social movement and what one is willing to do with friends and strangers on a given evening after the future has come to an end?
Three years ago we wrote from an absent future we had encountered on the grounds of the American university. Today, the absence of that future is everywhere present. Neither capital nor its would-be antagonists can provide a compelling portrait of the next decade, let alone the next century. All the sci-fi utopias of flying cars and robot servants, of full automation and zero work, seem truly ridiculous. No one can imagine capitalism providing a series of progressive social reforms, any more than they can imagine seizing the state and the economy to provide a more egalitarian distribution of resources. No, the future presents only as ruin, apocalypse, burning metal in the desert. There is no possibility of an instrumental linking of means to ends, a linking of people to party, party to program. Everywhere, means exceed their ends; everywhere, the registration of social catastrophe must find its occasion lacking any remedies carried forward from the past. In such a conjuncture, the masses are opportunists; they find in immediate and often trivial demands an opportunity to mobilize grand antagonisms which otherwise find no clear expression.
The “Arab Spring” seems at first glance to defy this accounting, to offer a natural equilibration of means and ends. The people want the fall of the regime. The unmaking of the associated figurehead, metonym for the regime, becomes the natural “end,” the seemingly self-evident demand of a heterogeneous mix of social antagonists. The hatred of a singular figure unites the antagonists, and provides, in countries where such figures exist, a contagious model for rebellion, leaping across a dozen nations in a mere matter of months. Mass movement, regime change, repeat.
But the repeat will prove decisive in turning this understanding on its head, in ways that will become clear; means and ends are not so neatly equilibrated. The dramatic sequence begins, after all, when a street vendor in Sidi Bouzid burns himself to death over the seizure of his merchandise, and over humiliation at the hands of a petty bureaucrat. The chain of events that follows can be understood as, among other things, an attempt to equalize that decisive violence with its occasion, to match means and ends, to understand the excessiveness of this act and the excessiveness of the people’s response to it: the proper circumstance for self-immolation is mass unemployment, is unrelenting corruption, is violations of human rights, is the incontrovertible rule of a strongman still in power 25 years after a coup d’etat. The equilibration now seems complete. It takes only 27 days; Ben Ali flees to Saudi Arabia.
The wheel will turn even more swiftly in Egypt. No one misses that things have been amiss for some time; strikes of textile workers in Mahalla three years earlier are alternately recalled and forgotten as the drama hastens along. Given a form by the Tunisian sequence, the presidential palace now given as the focus of antagonism, it takes Egypt only 18 days from the protesting masses’ entrance into Tahrir Square to Mubarak’s exit. The “Pearl Revolution” in Bahrain meets a different fate, as does the massive gathering in Sana’a, Yemen. But the structure, the logic of the struggles across the Arab Spring, is solidified. Massive gathering in a public square; a willingness to resist, to defend the ground from which the singular demand is made: the president must go. Territory and regime, plaza and palace, are the two unifying factors.
But this antagonism is in fact endless, circular. The decapitation of this or that boss cannot satisfy it, and so it repeats eternally, deposing leader after leader — presaged, in our conjuncture, by the fourfold collapse of Argentina’s government in a matter of two years, without achieving much of anything. Nothing can make this circularity more plain than the departure of Mohamed Morsi, 30 months after Hosni Mubarak’s fall, one year and a week after his own election. It turns out that it was not the fall of the regime the people wanted, was not democracy in some abstract sense. What is discovered in this repetition is that the ends have not yet been discovered.
When the European “movement of the squares” attempts to adapt the Tahrir moment — and its accompanying tactics and strategies — to the fight against austerity in Spain, in Italy and Greece, it finds quite quickly that there is no Mubarak, no Quadaffi, no naturalend which can harmonize and coordinate its motley antagonisms. This is itself an odd catastrophe of Europe; its vaunted “modernity” cannot summon even the metaphor of storming the palace. There is only the square itself, the territory, which now becomes the site of a self-referential, inward-directed process, the enactment of democracy and the self-organization of the constituent assembly. The turn toward internal process is the logical consequence of the absence of any unifying antagonist. Only endless processes of deliberation, discussion and consensus formation can unite the crowds. As anyone familiar with the process will attest, this is a means that cannot end.
The plaza is the material embodiment of the movement’s ideals — a blank place for a blank form. Through the plaza, radical democracy hearkens back to its origin myth, theagora, the assembly-place of ancient Greece that served also as marketplace. These plazas are not, however, the buzzing bazaars filled with economic and social transaction, but vast pours of concrete and nothingness, marked by a few fountains or trees here or there. These are spaces set aside precisely by the separation of the “political” from the economy, the market. Nowhere was this more clear than in the leading U.S. iteration, which endeavored, meekly and rather insincerely, to occupy the real agora, the real space of exchange — the stock exchange — but ended up pushed into a small, decorative park on the outskirts of Wall Street, its barricades turned on itself, penned by police. It was this separation which would prove decisive.
In reality, the unity of these gatherings was not internally defined, nor constructed through deliberation; it was vouchsafed by its difference from the surrounding and hostile world. This obtained even in places like Spain where the movement presumed to be the movement of everyone, of the 100%, of their unity beyond the false differentiations introduced by ideology. There, the antagonist was anyone who dared to represent others, or to differ from them through the adoption of some particularistic identity. No Nos Representan: a phrase which nonetheless contains an us and a them.
Despite their will to include everyone, these movements succeeded at the precise moment when they were given an explicit antagonist — as with the Syntagma Square occupation in Athens, which in the face of the parliamentary vote on a new round of austerity measures in June 2011, passed from intransitive occupation of the square to intransigent assault on the parliament and associated buildings. In the present age of austerity even the most meager of demands will require the social democrats to pick up bricks. As a question of tactics, there is no longer a meaningful opposition between revolution and reform; both now require exertion of maximal force. Even a slight modification of the system would require collective violence of a near revolutionary intensity, a fact whose simultaneous unspeakability and self-evidence within the left lends anti-austerity struggles a strange desperation.
East Coast/West Coast
The unfolding of the “Occupy movement” in the United States finds itself polarized by this incommensurablilty. For all the underlying similarities of New York and Oakland, the popular narratives of each register a dramatic opposition — at least temporarily.
At the eastern pole, after an initial bid to agree on a singular demand dead-ends, the rhetoric shifts dramatically. “The camp is its own demand.” Forwarded by celebrity anarchists, the politics of prefiguration collapses means and ends altogether, insisting that the encampment’s forms of life are a version of the desired future; all that remains is for the whole world to become an Occupy camp. For a few dreamlike moments in the autumn of 2011 this seems imaginable.
At the western pole, while labor over the daily life of the camp holds sway in Oakland, this is grasped as a rather desperate bid for survival, for the preservation of a space from which sallies against the present might be staged. The figure for these sallies will be the black bloc, the rebel march, the smashed window and the ceaseless mourning it inspires. It becomes — both in the opportunistic travesties of the media, and to some degree in truth — a hyperbolization of means approaching their own desolate autonomy.
The official origin story of Occupy begins as an attempt to bring the logic of the Arab Spring and the movement of the squares to the US. The journal Adbusters, its politics revolving around a vision of alternative consumerism, proposes the convergence on Wall Street as a “Tahrir moment” while borrowing its rhetoric of occupation from the university struggles of 2009 through which circulated the proposition of demandlessness. The scheme is to gather as both manifestation and deliberative body, to determine thence the one demand of the movement-in-the-making: to discover, as it were, a Mubarak for Main Street.
But one is not to be found. No demand can coalesce in the curiously ambiguous park, a privately owned space set aside for public use — a sort of allegory for the underlying entanglement of the economic and political even as they are cordoned from each other in practice. The inability to discover a demand is by now overdetermined. In part it must be understood as a hesitation before the complexity of crisis, and the many forms of suffering it carried in train. What one demand – besides an end to capitalism – could possibly answer the crisis? Add to this the strange problem of the movement’s unexpected force and breadth: having gathered considerably more bodies and credibility than expected, there is a great unwillingness to split the crowd with the adoption of inevitably divisive programs that would invariably promote the demands of some groups over others. And finally, against such tentative divisions and the murkiness of the movement’s enemies, there is the lived situation; a new power has been constituted, a form of life based on free access to food and other necessaries, communal life, voluntary participation in the various groups and committees. Of course, this power is paltry before its immediate opponents, hemmed on all sides by the facticity of state power and the absent stare of world capital circulating somehow nearby but with imperial indifference. These two things share the same source; the more impotent Occupy is, the more it withdraws inward, becoming an end unto itself, a post-capitalist future purportedly lived in the now. This is what building the new world in the shell of the old means today: an assembly ringed by cops.
Stripped of the rhetoric of prefiguration – and the pretence that one could produce a future society today, amidst all the misery of the present – the camps are a success, not as miniature utopias, but as vehicles for some of the most destitute people to organize for their own survival: food, supplies and basic shelter, all of it given and received freely. Here, the camps are means toward an obvious end: not social modeling, but survival, life. They provide the means of subsistence, even production. And importantly, these things are no longer forms of charity as with the soup kitchen or shelter, but collective activities open to participation on all sides. The structures of free giving create a practical unity against the failure of the assemblies’ bid for discursive unity. And though everyone eventually comes to hate the assemblies, to see them as an essential waste of time, this is only because the conversations are continually forced into the straitjacket of a decision-making process. It is easy to forget the simple optimism of the exuberant crowd, the happy experience of listening to people who had never done anything but listen tell the assembled hundreds or thousands what they thought and what they wanted to do. In America, a country based on a practiced ignorance of the lives of others, this is something of a miracle.
This might seem a contradiction, and it is – a productive one. What we learn is that the more these spaces withdraw from confrontation with the antagonistic forces surrounding them, the less they are able to open up spaces of difference with them, and the uglier and more terrible become the new forms of community they create. Conversely, the more the camps fight the surrounding police-world, the more they become actually liberated zones, rather than simulacra of liberation.
In Oakland, this process is taken to it limits. In the plaza in front of city hall, thousands gather and together create an autonomous zone off-limits to the police, intractable to the entreaties of the city government. On one occasion, city managers distribute a warning notice throughout the camp with the most negligible proffers: the promise, for example, that amplified sound will be allowed, as long as a request is made. Talk to us. Say anything. An hour later, the general assembly puts the pages to the fire. As an old Belgian once said, everything is of a muchness.
The attachment people feel toward this space is directly proportional with its avowed antagonism to the surrounding world. The principles of mutual aid and care, freedom and autonomy from compulsion, the practical communism of its kitchens and childcare centers, libraries and meeting groups, have as their necessary complement a willingness to burn and smash and riot in defense of these things. This is what it means to refer to the camp in Oakland as the Oakland Commune, and as a result, the state’s eventual attack on the camp is resisted forcefully, first by thousands and then by tens of thousands during the “general strike” of 2 November 2011.
That day’s blockade of the sprawling Port of Oakland, its attempted occupation of a social center and the night of rioting that followed, put on display both the heights and limits of the commune. These moments of expansion emerge primarily as a defensive response to the state’s attacks on the camp. The territorialization of the struggle, the movement’s reliance upon the shared space of the camp as the guarantor of its coherence in the absence of any explicit demand or target, is both the source of its strength and its chief weakness. Though it is clear to most that the obvious horizon of expansion for the Oakland Commune is the occupation of buildings and houses rather than public parks, as well as the expansion and diffusion of the general assemblies into neighborhood assemblies, such attempts fail, in part because they are undertaken too late, and in part because of the movement’s literalistic attachment to the plot of grass in front of City Hall, for which people fight in a series of losing battles.
New York and Oakland differ in their choice of means. Oakland’s means run wild in the streets. New York, on the other hand — run aground on the tautologies of nonviolence – worries the question of means, afraid to antagonize, lest it polarize. But in Zucotti Park and Oscar Grant Plaza, there is the same sense of the camp as end in and of itself, and both movements are ultimately buried within the enclosure of the square. After the evictions, they never regain their lost force.
Idealism and the Party
Thus arrives the moment of greatest uncertainty in the unfolding sequence. It is clear enough that the wave of unrest will not subside; equally apparent that the movement of the squares has reached its limits. It is here that two traditions from the past, immeasurably contrary to each other, rise to test the contours of the moment. One is the riot, to which we will return. It is not, to say the least, a convivial apparition for those married still to the mechanics of the party, to the rose-tinted memories of the social wage at it existed half a century back.
This belated dream of a social democratic contract gotten via reinvigorated parliamentarism seems to many the only course: a demand which seems makeableprecisely in its cautious desire to impose only the most modest limits on capital. But this is not some autonomous character of the demand; it does not float independent of given conditions. The overdeveloped nations of today cannot reverse course and paddle upstream to the headwaters of Keynesianism. There is no possibility of an expanded productivity that can internalize rather than expel labor, generating the profit with which capital can purchase the social peace. Nothing in the swells and lulls of capital’s crisis suggests such a reflux. Indeed, the dream of an impossible Keynesian refoundation bears with it the nostalgia for a moment of limited social struggle, the synchrony of means and ends. In the breach of the here and now, it cannot be conjured.
Into this rift enters the theoretical stopgap of The Party, arising from its historical sleep. It has slumbered long in the salons of the penseurs; suddenly it is roused as the only possible guarantor of the right end for political uprising. Everywhere, the same refrain. In the wake of the Arab Spring and its frequently pyrrhic victories; in the failure of any of the European occupations to block the successive austerity measures; in the inability of Occupy to deflect the US from its race to the bottom — in all of this we are told that what we see is a failure of organization. In the great political hierarchy of being, spontaneous movements are valuable only inasmuch as they incidentally recruit potentials for the formation of durable organizations that can leverage the powers of the multitude, disciplining it in the name of the achievable and the possible.
In one regard, the point here is an obvious one. Each of these movements failed to find a way forward, and we can certainly agree that whatever ways forward existed would have involved new forms of organization, since there is no collective struggle that does not involve, at some moment, people agreeing to proceed together, to do this rather thanthat, to multiply and coordinate and organize their powers. But those who call for a party, sometimes openly, sometimes behind a veneer of philosophical deniability, presume that the contradictions and vagaries of these movements can be resolved through the imposition of a principled objective from outside, be it communist hypothesis or social democratic pragmatism. Or perhaps it will simply be organization for organization’s sake, because it is good, because it worked before. Sort of. In either case, the question of ends and means will be answered with a program delivered to the waiting crowd. This after all is the role that the program served, once upon a time, in its grandest sweep. Seizure of the state, dictatorship of the proletariat, a purported withering away: this mediation between bourgeois parliamentarism and communist plenitude is the historical function of the transitional program. Indeed, the program is nothing less than the violent adhesion of means and ends. It is this history, by now reduced to flotsam and jetsam, that washes up the open stone of the plaza.
What the belated prophets of such programs don’t realize is that the absence of a shared objective, at the level of ideals, is constitutive, and that only the most diminished or abstract objectives can unify the various groups set already in motion. The very fact that no credible attempt to create such a party has emerged from any of these struggles — in stark opposition to the mobilizations of the 20th century — seems to indicate the dubious character of this proposed path forward. Rather than laying the failures in Egypt or Spain at the feet of the masses unable to reason their way forward according to the syllogisms of our philosophes, we might look for explanations in the changed conditions of 21st century capitalism: a capitalism which no longer offers a fantasy of mastery to any but those still adrift in the dream of 1917, no longer creates a class that imagines itself master-to-be of the technological powers capital has conjured into being.
This matters little to the theorists for whom the clash in the streets is largely a matter of competing idealizations: the individualism of the neoliberal era against altruistic fidelity to the collective, as one dean of the communist idea has it. Communism, we are told, is primarily important as an idea, a principle, a watchword to which the mobilized remain faithful after the square has been cleared, after the arrested have been tried and sentenced, after yet another conference on communism has emptied into the dreary evening of the status quo.
But communism is not an idea; it is a process, and the only things capable of mobilizing fidelity to it are the concrete activities of which it is composed. If we want to locate the ways forward for the blocked movements of the present, we should look to the activities of the participants, the practices of struggle that might be extended, elaborated and transformed. Organization is not a thing, in this sense, but an action. We would do well to distinguish between organization as such – organization as static form – and what the admirable left communist Anton Pannekoek once called the “spirit of organization” – that is, the ability of proletarian antagonists to ceaselessly elaborate new forms as the occasion requires, out of the felt need for collective forms that emerges from occasions of struggles and the experiences of proletarians. Such ideas were marginal among militants, and for the most part, the ideas of the idea-communists of Pannekoek’s time carried the day, despite the fact that nearly every significant tactical development – the mass strike, the councils – emerged from behind the backs of militants. Then as now the idea-communists see the party as the only force capable of piloting the benighted working-class through the treacherous waters of capitalism, providing for it the theoretical vision which it does not possess.
As the idea of the party returns from its slumber, it encounters an old havoc. The great chaos of the riot – self-destructive, pointless, we are told – demonstrates for theorganisateurs the need for the disciplining force of the party. It is certainly fitting, therefore, that one of the most significant riots of recent years emerged less than 10 kilometers from Birkbeck College. Nothing could make the situation clearer. The riot presents the conference communists with their order’s other. But this misses the inner character of the riot, its dialectical motion, in which a “violent order is a disorder; and … a great disorder is an order.”
The riot is not a new fact upon the earth. It is a sort of primeval tactic, as old perhaps as civilization itself. In the centuries before capitalism proper the riot was central to the tactical repertoire of the dominated classes. This persists within the generalization of the marketplace that presages industrialization and the formation of a working class. Riots, while sometimes concerning themselves with taxes, land rights, and other traditional privileges, find their modern coherence as struggles in the marketplace over the price or the destiny of foodstuffs, subsistence goods. These struggles often passed over into open insurrection, into the great “risings of the people” of the 18th century. They meet modernity with machine breaking, led by General Ludd and Captain Swing, phantoms from beyond the wage.
But with proletarianization, the site of class struggle moves from marketplace to workplace, from circulation to production. Over the course of the 19th century, the strike emerges as the tactic of choice. It contains an inherent discipline and even asceticism. Even when it takes up the violence and confrontation of riot, transforming sometimes into general insurrection, the strike nonetheless begins from the standpoint of labor and its product. At its center: a refusal, a withdrawal, a form of powerful, Bartleby-like inaction toward which response proves difficult, as any violent counterattack by employers risks seeming excessive, allowing the workers to defend themselves and even go on the offensive with impunity. This moral logic of intransigent refusal, provocation by reactionary forces, the opening onto riotous insurrection, is rendered explicit in the theories of the mass strike – Sorel’s especially. The mass strike provides a blueprint for the revolutionary sequences of that period, which so flummoxed and surprised the social democratic and, later, Bolshevik leadership bearing other ideas about how class struggle should proceed.
Eventually, in the waning of the revolutionary period and the integration of a certain diluted class struggle within the developmental logic of capitalism, the strike is formalized. The pacific and moralized element is emphasized. It is legitimated precisely insofar as it is purged of violence; with this, the latent opposition comes to the fore, and the riot becomes the strike’s other. It is transformed, as it were, behind the back of the strike. It thence appears as the métier of the lumpen, the urban poor, the colonized peoples of the third world, of women and homosexuals and that strange new social category, the “youth.”
The party of the party has always loved this disciplinary aspect of the strike, its emphasis on control, restraint. The strike, in this sense, becomes an allegory of moderation: the self-denying asceticism of sad militants lost in the night of capitalism in which all conditions are forever immature, all actions adventurist. Self-knowledge as self-limit. Postwar trade unions have been exemplary in this regard, turning the strike into a machine for deferral, temporizing and compromise. But with onset of crisis in the seventies requiring firms to drive wages below the cost of reproduction itself, even these docile creatures became too much a hindrance for capitalism.
And so began a process of corporate restructuring, fragmenting the labor force such that the opportunities for effective workplace action are now few and far between. This restructuring has meant the weakening of the strike weapon and with it the revolutionary compact that joined class, union and party for an assault on state power. All this is dead, and in its wake reemerges a weapon older than the worker’s movement: the riot testifies to that movement’s eclipse, and presents itself as one of the few weapons on offer.
Here we approach something like the core of the puzzle. To say that ends and means have come apart is to affirm again the changed character of our present moment: the very measure of ends and means learned by revolutions of the 20th century no longer holds.No wonder so many contemporary struggles fail its test. The riot goes out of the squarepost festum. There is a sense in which it is the purest case of incommensuration — thatriot is the very name for the inability of means to find their ends in our moment. It searches for them in the glow of intersection fire, in the glass of shop displays, in the prised rocks tossed at riot cops. This urgent quest underlies the confusion by which riots are thought to be entirely distant from strategy and tactics, lacking in politics — concentrations of chaos set loose for one or three desperate nights.
Inevitably then, the riot unites the left organisateurs with the party of order: each dismisses the riot’s irrationality and opportunism, its ideological character, its unreason. They differ only in the amount of hand-wringing, the varied tones of tedious and paternalistic “understanding.” What could it mean to suggest that the great disorder of the riot is an order, albeit one not contemplated by our moment’s Kautskys and Lenins? We have seen already that the limit of the riot is not its failure to get with the program, as it is precisely the eclipse of the program that the new riot registers. We might argue, obliquely, that riot is cradle to a different order altogether. In every riot that earns its name there is the moment when all things come loose, when the physics of social existence seems to undergo a qualitative change. In this moment the participants realize that they can engage in no small number of forbidden activities and get away with it — they realize, that is to say, that the implicit threat which has bound them to good behavior no longer holds sway. You will recognize this moment — sound of shattering glass, pregnant pause, no response — as the euphoria of the drift, the long and frictionless slide of crisis now come down, minute by minute, to daily life.
It is in this sensation that one discovers a secret kept most carefully by the enemy: that we are not bound to the law, to public order, to society by some immanent power that traverses our consciousness and our days. We are bound by specific applications of force. This force is real and being real it is calculable. Like everything calculable it can be overcome. It is entirely possible for there to be too many antagonists to be managed, moving too quickly and wildly. This is the beginning of counterorganization as we understand it: the real knowledge that the struggle is concrete, a matter of bodies, maneuver, speed. One must know this in one’s nerve to make revolutions.
At the same time, the riots of the present are as transitory as they are intense. This is part of their very essence. Habitually called into being by police violence and then harried further by the same police, the riot orients itself rather fatally toward the state. As our friends have written about England in 2011
The riot itself already carried this content; the verbalised justifications in its midst merely clarified something already evident. This riot demanded the presence of the police, as the immediate interlocutor for whom it was performed, whose recognition it insisted upon, whose presence and participation it invited, and through whose efforts it was constituted.
The revelation of the state’s concrete character, the deadly but finite rule of the police, becomes an enticement. The compulsions of capital remain for the moment abstract, removed; the capacity of the riot is expended on the state because the state presents itself as the practical enemy. One might say that the state was once strong but attenuated over distance, from king’s keep to countryside, while the economy was weak but intensely local, baker and bootmaker just down the way. Now the situation is reversed. There is no state but the police, always near to hand; it is the economy that is now attenuated along global supply chains and abstract financial networks.
This is why we understand the beginning of looting not as a divagation from struggle but as a moment of truth. It points backward to the price-setting of the 18th century; it points forward to the meeting of needs, a preliminary turn to reproduction. Of course it is opportunism, as is no small part of struggle. At the same time, it engages the abstract enemy on concrete terms. It asks a question that capital cannot answer: that of social reproduction beyond the wage. This is not a question the riot itself can answer; if the market seemed three centuries ago to be the place where the matter of self-reproduction could be addressed, this is no longer the case. The market can no longer express the productivity of the crowd, made objective and merely alienated by a single degree. Now endlessly familiar, it is nonetheless a perfectly alien place. The foray into the market can be only momentary. Still it marks the riot as a turn from production to circulation, betraying its secret relation to the range of circulation struggles which have taken on such a crooked charisma in our moment: the blockade (echoing the old export riot), the occupation — and finally, the commune.
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 uncertain 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.
[Addendum: We finished a draft of this essay, a revision of an earlier piece, “Plaza-Riot-Commune,” more than a year ago, but work for pay and other misfortunes have delayed its release. In the meantime, it’s become clear that the essay failed to pay adequate attention to the question of nationalism and populism. Following are supplementary remarks on that topic:
That the passage beyond the limits of riot and plaza rarely occurred we already know. The exceptions are instructive, however. Wherever the passage to revolution occurred, it did so in ways that left capital largely unharmed; the distribution of the things of this world according to the rule of value and wage, money and price, was never challenged except in the most transitory manner. These were revolutions superintended by armies whose integrity remained inviolable, revolutions that devolved quickly into civil wars in which almost any sense of an objective beyond the capture of power for the sake of power’s capture would be lost. This has only become clearer as the sequence continues to unfold, in 2014, with the hopeful efflorescence of Turkey, Brazil, Bosnia, and the ugly fascism of the Ukraine, where the symbols and tactics of the political sequence have been directed toward explicitly reactionary ends.
The dilemma we confront is this: where the uprisings were strongest they were weakest; where strongest in terms of material force, where armed insurgency appeared, it was vouchsafed by the sign of nation or people. The ambiguities of populism and nationalism were visible from the beginning, of course, visible in the hesitance of the Egyptian masses in the face of the army, audible in the horrifying and unintentionally revealing phrase, the army and the people are one. One hears it too, in the way that the concept of the 99 percent halfway disavows class struggle, a populism minus one. The insistence on formal togetherness, on formal unity, in the absence of a unity based upon shared objective must be a placeholder for the unity of people or nation. The openness to the populist and nationalist turn emerges directly, in this regard, from the failure to link means to any kind of end, to find any meaningful objective beyond the overturning of all that is. In the present, it’s either all or nothing. Communism or the nation. The proletariat or the people. The fixation on the state and state power — and we include here the conjuncture of rioters and police that so easily becomes a pas de deux — enables the populist turn, by providing a convenient target that all manner of unsavory groups might agree to hate. This is the unity of one’s enemies enemies, arrayed as far as the eye can see: an impressive massing no doubt but inevitably bearing objectives that outstrip our worst imaginings. Rather than attempting to draw everyone together into a formal unity, the movements that succeed where the present sequence failed will likely need to find tactics and strategies that polarize as much as they unify.]