Archive for the Activism Category

Brief Note on Consensus

Posted in Activism, Political Theory with tags , , on June 7, 2010 by traxus4420

For those who don’t know, formal and quasi-formal consensus are approaches to decision-making in which every participant has to agree before a decision can be made. Like majority voting, there are a number of mechanics designed to facilitate the process, and others to make it work with larger and larger groups. It’s standard for U.S. anarchists, and widely adopted in some form by other activists, community organizers, etc. Advocates tend to argue that, while mechanics may differ, consensus is the only fully non-coercive principle to guide decision-making, and that anything else (i.e. majority voting, vanguardism, technocratic bureaucracy) has to rely at some point on the threat of force.

I want to respond to a common criticism of consensus, that it simply legitimates coercion by not institutionalizing the power of certain individuals (leaders, representatives, etc.) or subgroups (the majority, elites) to have final say. Instead, these factions continue to influence things while hiding — even from themselves — behind the screen of total legitimacy. Note that this is the exact opposite of the Marxist criticism that anarchist consensus is individualistic, libertarian, and undisciplined. My own (limited) experience as a participant makes the latter hard to take seriously. The facilitators were constantly talking about consensus’s usefulness as a way to “get people out of their own heads” by forcing everyone to speak. The ‘free rider’ problem was reduced, as was the possibility of disclaiming a decision that had already been made — after all, ‘you’ were equally responsible for it.

So the idea that any of this is individualistic is a pretty unimaginative position, and an insult to the commitment of group members, without which the entire endeavor is sort of pointless. Far from being idealist, consensus organizing is deeply pessimistic — as with ‘appropriate technologies’ (another popular idea with activists) the point is to design structures that are resistant to abuse by the ambitious/insensitive/imbecilic. Anything that presupposes competent oversight, resistance to corruption, and a modest degree of human decency in order to function (monarchy, nuclear power plants, oil rigs, oligarchy, etc.) only justifies an elite who will inevitably ruin everything by taking responsibility from those more directly involved (the labor force, the citizenry, etc.).

Anyway, as someone who spends most of my time inside my own head, it quickly became clear that I was not fit for membership. But the accusation that consensus is hypocritical because it’s still ‘coercive’ seems in bad faith. Consensus decision-making is not utopian. It has features common to any form of deliberation: it’s boring, tedious, uncomfortable for introverts, and a lot of hard work. It’s only as effective as the ability of the people it empowers to work together, and their sensitivity to those who might be affected by their decisions. The definition of ‘coercive’ that tends to be assumed in this sort of disillusioned, skeptical critique I’m talking about only allows pure autonomous freedom to count as ‘non-coercive,’ and in that sense discounts itself. A bit like assuming (as lazier readers of Derrida and Bourdieu sometimes do) that vigorous disagreement is a kind of ‘violence’ comparable to punching someone in the face, or blowing up a bank. It is, of course, but this is just a banal truism unless the whole notion of violence is rethought. And that would necessitate rethinking ‘consensus’ apart from assumptions grounded in the idealist justifications (and everyday experience) of representative democracy.

The Politics 2.0 of Health Reform

Posted in Activism, Capitalism, Politics 2.0, U.S. Politics with tags , , on March 24, 2010 by traxus4420

Now that the bill has been signed, the long debate between liberals and leftists (or between pragmatism and radicalism if you prefer), has solidified into a provisional conclusion about their relationship status. Of course the dynamics haven’t changed a bit, and would have resolved in exactly the same way regardless of the outcome. Winners and losers both love a scapegoat. I limit myself here to responding to the standard liberal critique of the left, which we’ve seen escalate to a fever pitch over the last couple months — that its arguments and proposals regarding health reform were (and are) unrealistic, hysterical, and unethical, three critical grace notes that crescendo from polite warning to all-out vilification.

The fundamental point about any more ideologically than materially interested opponent of the bill (the ‘far left’ and the ‘teabaggers’) is that their antagonism irresponsibly risks the lives of millions of uninsured (the other big one is the economic argument that the bill will save money — but since they’re formally identical I’m going to focus on the more provocative of the two) for basically psychological reasons: vanity, willed ignorance, naivete, sheer irrationality.

The left’s predictable response to this vulgar psychologization of their opposition is to call it an excuse not to deal with their substantive arguments. This is for the most part true, but the exceptions are of more practical importance — Ezra Klein and Jane Hamsher’s back-and-forth was one of the few scuffles where both parties actually helped clear things up (here’s Klein’s response to her critiques from December and her recent list of the bill’s shortcomings if you haven’t read them).

All that said, the basic objections of the left to the health bill are pretty straightforward:

a) Shores up the power and profit of the health insurance industry and big pharma

b) Unsustainable in the long run as a result of a)

c) Ignores technically implementable solutions (single payer, public option, Medicare buy-in) to b) as a result of a)

d) will make it harder to actually fix the health care system because of a) through c)

e) Unethically excludes some possible beneficiaries (mostly undocumented immigrants) as a result of a) through d)

f) sells out women’s abortion rights

g) The bill is just a federalist upgrade of Mitt Romney’s health care reform in Massachusetts, which is currently running down the state’s budget

h) By capitulating on every major point, the left sabotaged any chance it might have had to increase its power as an independently consequential force in politics.

The first of these is a given. Everyone whose opinion counts agrees with it. The question is not ‘is the bill a corporate giveaway’ but ‘do the ‘theoretical’ implications of this fact matter.’ The worst thing about the dysfunctional U.S. health care system — its immediate dependency on and empowerment of profit-seeking corporations with horrific track records — is built into the bill’s structure.  This is of course why regulation of that industry and its enforcement remains minimal. Touted as a legal ‘right’ to health care, it’s actually a state-supervised sale of American citizens to the health insurance industry, paid for by provisions and subsidies whose future solvency is tied as strongly as ever to the fortunes of finance capital. This is what Obama’s administration has always been about: government and industry openly and unproblematically working together to ‘manage resources,’ their preferred definition of politics. Much of what we see happening in public debate over Obama’s policies is the steady repression of older ideological positions that would pit the free market and the state against one another, in favor of a new pragmatism (read: more efficient capitalist class solidarity). And we will surely continue to see this dynamic when we come to finance reform. Altering the newly revised relationship between the state and the health industry in any substantial way would require a second overhaul far greater than the current one, which is not going to occur during Obama’s presidency.

The next three are more debatable. Though the bill will probably be tweaked and improved upon in a ‘progressive’ ‘direction,’ the ‘real reform’ the left keeps bringing up — health care divorced from the corporate-dominated ‘free’ market — is far less likely. Given the current power asymmetry between Obama’s centrism and the progressive movement, a ‘public option’ or ‘single payer’ system will probably only be instated if it doesn’t accomplish what the left wants it to.

The fourth (e) is secondary overall and easily refuted when stated on its own (the new bill will cover more people than before, obviously better than the status quo), so I’m going to skip it.

The wrongness of f) is obscene enough that I’m not going to get into it either.

I’m also going to skip (g), basically agreeing (though details matter, etc. etc.), and noting in passing that it’s a handy retort to anyone who would still lazily/opportunistically equate the far right with the far left, forcing a definition of what ‘progressive’ actually means in practice.

The last point, (h), gets at the core of the left’s internal division. Without any pressing votes, everyone seems to agree on strategy. Now is the time for everyone to wax rhetorical about how ‘this isn’t the end of reform,’ ‘the fight goes on,’ ‘there’s still work to be done,’ etc. But when used as an argument in favor of capitulation, ‘we can fix it later’ obscures the riskiness of the liberals’ own position and projects it entirely onto their ‘obstructionist’ opposition. No one in the progressive movement has any power to write checks for what they will be able to accomplish in the future. Only at the very end of the process, when only one or two votes separated defeat and long-term impotence from victory, when we really were ‘all on the same team,’ did capitulation become necessity, even courage.

The spectacle of Dennis Kucinich’s 11th-hour turnaround is instructive, not for the triumph of ideas it was sold as by the MSM and his supposed progressive allies like Kos and others, but for how it highlighted where decisive political pressure comes from:

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: The pressure doesn’t really come so much from the outside. I mean, I had people who are for this and against it with equal intensity. What the pressure comes from, being told that you might be singularly responsible for the passage or failure of an initiative and having to live with the implications of that.

And, Amy, I’ll tell you that one of the things that surprised me the most is that even though they said everything’s on the line and even though they said it could come down to one vote and pointed at me and said, “That could be your vote,” they still wouldn’t budge on it. So then, I’m—and I mean, I tested and probed and talked to everybody, all the way down the chain of leadership, to see if there’s any way, and frankly, it’s mystifying, except to say that they’re keeping a for-profit system intact. There’s no air in here to try to find a way to get to a not-for-profit system.

As Glenn Greenwald has pointed out again and again throughout this legislative process, pragmatic defenses of the bill’s passage against its critics typically ignore the issue of power (Greenwald also distinguishes a kind of unthinking allegiance to the bill from rational argument in its favor — but in the midst of battle I don’t think they can be kept apart for very long). Health reform was and is a collective project in the same way any capitalism 2.0 institution is a collective project — workers are involved, with an unprecedented degree of intimacy, in labor toward ends they didn’t choose and which are usually counter to their explicit wishes. With every effort they become more dependent on their ‘employers,’ who pay them by, in essence, taking care of them.

Most of what this requires in today’s politics is fostering a sense of involvement, better affective than effective. Party politicians recognize a practical need for reform, and attempt to create consensus among the population of actual and potential activists by encouraging us to feel as if ‘we’ are engaged in a ‘progressive moment.’ So the Obama adminstration’s pragmatic response to crisis: redistribute, recenter, and re-legitimize ruling class power, is depicted as ‘progressive’ (not just ‘preferable’) in relation to the no longer appropriate ideologies and power relationships it seeks to displace. Since the progressive left does all the work of organizing and disciplining itself, all political elites like Obama have to do is repeatedly affirm the collective nature of the endeavor while maintaining its divided, hierarchical structure, and ensuring that a self-conscious activist left remains marginalized. Ignoring or undermining all the left’s demands enforces obedience; for its ideas to be recognized in the political landscape at all it is obligated to negate its own short and long-term goals in actual practice, sublimating them (in utopian, fantastic form) into the ‘movement.’

In this precarious situation, the left gets an opportunity to fight for a more than just symbolic existence in exchange for spending most of its time working for the Democratic establishment. It’s a devil’s bargain, and one that requires constant vigilance in order to work out in the left’s favor. Right now that means accepting that even though health reform was certainly ‘progressive’ for the Democratic party, and will probably be ‘progressive’ in terms of minimal improvements to the efficiency, oversight, and overall cost of the health care system (which should lead to further improvements in the short-to-medium term), it was a defeat of progressivism as a political movement. It’s really not possible to argue otherwise — we won nothing we wanted, only things we didn’t know we were willing to settle for.

This is the heavily compromised position from which ethical arguments by liberals against left critics are made. Critique (h) infuriates liberal pragmatists because it suggests to them that the left is willing to sacrifice human lives for its own power. The fact that power is necessary to any political project is affirmed in theory but ignored in practice, conveniently reduced to a private ‘unhealthy obsession.’ The liberal imperative to “pass the damn bill” became more true as the struggle progressed, reinforced almost without a hitch by the progressive movement’s own actions, even though this contentless pragmatism first appeared on the other side, what the left early on called Obama’s political cynicism. This is the “party discipline” currently being praised, stemming not from any ideological center but from the situation as presented to us, the perpetually crisis-ridden status quo. In the final months, one could conceivably make the case that rejecting the bill really did put you on the same team as the Republicans. Thankfully that useful if counter-intuitive argument had already been well worn in, since almost every stage was (wrongly) considered the battle’s ‘final months.’

Lawrence Lessig recently called Republicans the “sock-puppets” of industry lobbyists: “a campaign waged against these sock-puppets will be a useless campaign waged against ½ of America.” This is more obviously the case now, but was still the case then. I would only amend to this that they were equal opportunity sock puppets — Obama  used them and liberal pundits used them to quash opposition from the left and to try to win support from moderate Republicans (which we thought didn’t exist but now see were just in the closet). Rationalized as a compromise victory, the spectacular ‘defeat’ of teabaggers was political theatre that benefitted everyone except progressives.

Again, improvements will probably be made, but they will be decided on by political elites primarily subject to pressure by inadequacies in the bill they just passed (which may manifest through public opinion polls and phone calls), not because a progressive movement has become more influential. Betting on the horse race, strategic planning for the movement, and argument about the content of the present bill have a tendency to blur together in progressive discourse, which obscures things further. The location of progressive agency is uncertain, so when someone conceivably identifiable as ‘you’ appears to be winning, it’s best not to think too much about it.

People like to feel good about what they’re doing, and probably have to in order to do it at all for very long (making me skeptical about my own future as one of the petition-signing, check-writing, senator-phoning activists I’ve just described). I don’t want to stand in the way of anyone’s celebration. There is reason to cheer for the fact that substantial reforms of any kind actually made it through our ‘historically’ dysfunctional Congress. I even see some short-term value in publicly claiming victory for the cheap political capital. The resurgence of Obama leader-worship and his rhetorical talent for converting collective action into nationalism is obnoxious, though I guess I have to get used to that as a permanent feature of this presidency. But can we just interrogate for a moment the slogan on everyone’s lips: ‘keep fighting!’ For what? For who? Or more to the point, how? If ‘real reform’ is going to happen anytime soon, the outcome of the health reform movement needs to be understood as the failure of progressive strategy, not a validation.

Speculative Activism

Posted in Activism, Cultural Theory, current events, The Internet, U.S. Politics, Utopia on September 5, 2009 by traxus4420

This post is in response to a funny thing that happened a couple days ago on Facebook. Gerry Canavan comments on it here:  throughout the day, “thousands” of Facebook users posted a pro-health care-reform message as their ‘status update’ in  a sudden outbreak of ‘viral activism.’ The whole thing peaked when Obama himself joined in. Watch the virus spread here.

As Gerry puts it:

We saw the same phenomenon early in the summer during Iran’s so-called Twitter Revolution, which had two overlapping and sometimes conflicting modes: the use of Twitter by people within Iran as a organizing and news-distributing tool and the use by people *outside* Iran for the purposes of vicarious participation in political struggle. Then, as now, the important thing is to signal you’re on the right side of a fight in which you are otherwise just a spectactor — then by tinting your Twitter avatar green and now by posting a shared slogan as your status update and then leaving it altered for the rest of the day. We could go back to 2008 and 2004 elections, or to any number of other charged moments, and find similar memes at play.

The question posed by this sort of thing is clear enough: should it count as ‘real’ activism or is it just a mass twitch  in the general direction of utopia, a show put on for the official media and for ourselves.

Any answer has  to start by considering it as quite literally a form of consumerism. It’s a full step further in that direction than the email activism of organizations like MoveOn, which rely on the recipient to take some sort of minimal action, like making a phone call, writing a protest email, signing a petition, which MoveOn transfers directly to its prearranged target, usually a professional decision maker. These older forms are carried onto Facebook as well, but they’re weaker on this platform, easier to ignore, and require different techniques to get them to work. A ‘status update’ or a ‘tweet’ can superficially seem more democratic — after all, no institution is telling the user what to do. But in practice this ‘act’ is identical to the ‘choice’ of the market.

That our very existences on social networking sites are commodities is an often overlooked fact. Given an existence wholly circumscribed by a virtual marketplace, everything we do, everything we post, is potentially a commodity by virtue of its link to ‘us.’ In ‘viral activism,’ by reproducing a more or less homogeneous message (a ‘meme,’ one of the few instances where the word actually refers to something), a population makes itself available as a single commodity for use by others in exchange for  individual use of the same message as a ‘status update’: an advertisement that promotes a certain identity to their ‘friends’ (and to themselves). The only difference between this and any other Facebook content is that this ‘mega-meme’ is produced ‘from the ground up.’

These are not simply semantic distinctions — they have consequences.  Virtual activists do not organize themselves in the way real activists do, i.e. form permanent or temporary political units such as parties, mobs, parades, whatever, directed toward a specific set of goals. Even when activists remain law-abiding their actions are intended to stage a confrontation, to disrespect boundaries that may not be acknowledged by the law. A social division is made, exchange relations dependent on certain forms of equivalence are foreclosed (i.e. politeness, personal space, a traffic intersection, etc.). As long as it’s part of a larger strategy from the beginning, this is true even of petition-signing. Virtual activists on the other hand are always responding to/initiating various types of interpolation from within an institutional setting (the site’s apparatus) that automatically neutralizes all it touches,  like ‘interactive’ television. A Facebook group is just a passive ‘tag,’ another identity accessory for the individual user and a commodity that passively awaits outside use (a social ad). As long as their virtual existence  is immanent with that institution (they remain members), all actions are wholly included within it, with zero remainder.

What are social ads good for? By aggregating the many status updates into a single product, they provide something for the bigger blogs and journalists to ‘report’ on (really just an outgrowth of tagging), and  from which a political meaning can be derived or invented. First and foremost they generate conversation, and since most of it will refer to Facebook if not occur on its platform they also indirectly generate more Facebook use and more prestige, a ‘status update’ for Facebook itself. Whether or not any of this can ‘make a difference’ is dependent upon how these commodities are employed by others.

The effects of this latest capture of the social reflect how our tiny plots of spectacular real estate turn us into micro-celebrities, where even to contemplate ‘action’ forces us into a narcissistic obsession with our public image, no matter how inconsequential it may be. Celebreality shows and the higher profile of porn stars in recent years show us that has-beens and nobodies fighting for table scraps will play the game of recognition even more ferociously than Hollywood royalty. The public face of this private complex is when celebrities, politicians-as-celebrities, or now you-as-celebrity endorse certain causes, ultimately all responsibility rests on YOU to act, even as the possibilities for action of the relatively elite YOU being addressed (the YOU who can be expected to take Them seriously) are increasingly observed, micromanaged, routed into narrower and more regulated pathways.


A final comparison to opinion polling is helpful in getting at the ideological function of social activertising. Unlike polls, the opinions of users don’t appear as already existing truths, dependent on the work of experts on ‘real’ demographics, but those truths actively expressed. Where a poll is employed in speculation — what x group ‘really thinks’ at a given moment is valuable as evidence for what actions they might take in the future — a wave of status updates or green-tinted Twitter profiles appear to assert themselves as political facts. No research or fact-checking need be done to evaluate truth claims when the phenomena is just the free and unsolicited manifestation of truth, like votes or sales figures. These ‘actions’ thus merge the legitimacy of a poll with the immediacy of activism. Virtual activism is more real than statistics (which are ‘always’ rigged), more legitimate than protests (which are ‘always’ dangerous).

Jonathan Singer (see link above):

While the vast majority of the political organizing I see on Facebook tends to come from the same names — friends working in politics on a full time basis — what is remarkable here is that these status updates containing a strong and clear message in favor of healthcare reform are coming not only from the political community but also from those whose lives are not immersed in these fights. These are regular young people, all around the country, speaking out in favor of reform. This movement is impressive and surprising, and, at least from this vantage, quite newsworthy.

This is what everyone said about Iran, the rhetoric directing us to understand these movements as made up of “everyday” people, free of the supposed dangers and ‘biases’ of ‘professional’ activists. Of course there is a selection process for which ideas can ‘filter up’ from the social network ‘netroots’ and what kinds of users can do what that tends not to be acknowledged. This selection process is, broadly speaking, class-based.

Here is a great article on one example of how class manifests online, the great divide between Myspace and Facebook with some very illuminating (and horrifying) quotes from teenagers. Facebook has clearly won the PR battle, easy to do when the New York Times’ reporting staff and most of its readership is made up of Facebook users. Facebook is the appropriate platform for politics, just as Myspace is the appropriate platform for your ex’s rock band and various sex offenders. This doesn’t even count the selection process for who gets to be on the Internet to begin with. And yet, through the magic of social networking, it is the Facebook community which is quickly establishing itself in the 24-hour image universe as the new legal-utopian definition of ‘the people.’ The obvious impossibility of this fantasy doesn’t mean it won’t have certain effects.

For a demonstration, let’s put on some ruling class spectacles and look at some pictures. Isn’t this:


infinitely preferable to this?


See? You didn’t even have to think about it.

Responsibilities of a pundit

Posted in Activism, Cultural Theory, Media, The Internet with tags , on June 14, 2009 by traxus4420

Struggling to keep up with events in Iran yesterday occasioned some good discussions with friends, which in turn generated a few thoughts on responsibility. I’ll try to keep them brief.

The idea that allegiance to one side or another is a universal responsibility is usually taken to be constitutive of politics. Much like the injunction to get a job, this demand is usually preceded by an acknowledgment that one really wants something else: a pure utopia of some kind, or just to be lazy, ‘absolutely’ free, to give the finger to someone in authority, etc.

That is, responsible politics tends to be articulated from a position of more or less tragic realism.

An example. Mainstream commentators on the Iranian post-election protests think the election was obviously rigged in favor of a politician they were already contemptuous of, Ahmadinejad. The people on the street are therefore ‘good’ rioters who just want freedom from tyranny, like the CIA-backed ‘popular struggle’ against Chavez. Insofar as they support Mousavi, the pro-economic liberalization reform opponent, veering no further left, they will remain good. Liberal reform is “realistic,” “college-educated,” “urban,” “tech-savvy,” and “at least it’s better than Islamofascism.”

On the other side, a number of left commentators are willing to at least water down critique of Ahmadinejad’s reactionary views and repressive policies in order to resist this sort of propagandizing appropriation by the western press. I’ve even seen it argued in the past that it’s “every socialist’s responsibility” to “support” the Islamic state, along with the Taliban, Hezbollah, etc. But generally with Iran, and conservative or radical Islamic political actors overall, there is a good deal of confusion over what side leftists should take.

It’s still of course too early to tell exactly in what direction things are going, if the election really was rigged, what the strength of the anti-Ahmadinejad protests are, who is involved, to what extent they’re being irresponsibly inflated (probably a lot).

UPDATE: Then again, perception is reality, etc. (2nd link via Canavan)

UPDATE2: Some election results (via arabawy)  — check everywhere else for criticism.

But the point is there’s a relationship between wanting freedom for others and claiming freedom for oneself. Especially for anyone who considers themself a radical egalitarian, in this world siding with a national party should always be the option of last resort. I see no reason to voluntarily submit to the stupidity of bad against worse in another country when most of us are already pressured to do so in our own. It’s not ‘strategic’ for an actor in the spectacle (a blogger, say) to compromise his or her political or moral views to vicariously ‘participate’ in other peoples’ struggles. Defending Hamas or Hezbollah’s resistance (an extreme example) to Israeli aggression makes the defender neither a subject nor an official ally. On the contrary, protest is necessary when your country is vicariously participating in other peoples’ struggles. Solidarity is with people. Not their states or their twitter profiles. I find it a pretty warped idea of politics that refusal to make a show of obedience to someone else’s party line, especially when there are no material consequences for oneself either way, should be looked on as weakness, incoherence, dilettantism, or ‘bourgeois’ vanity. The opposite is closer to the truth — it is after all the MSM’s favorite propaganda tool to associate its critics with fictional cabals, while affirming the “true desire for freedom and democracy” of “the people.” The mark of the informed-but-still-ignorant pundit is to think of everyone else as the conscious or unconscious minion of a higher power, and of himself as a ghost.

To make an even more general point, I don’t pretend to know what’s best for Iranians, autoworkers, women, or illegal immigrants in their capacity as Iranians, autoworkers, women, or illegal immigrants. Being a media consumer of other peoples’ problems is a privilege. It’s a privilege to be informed free of direct involvement, not to be forced to take a side contrary to one’s real interests and desires. Which is why I am automatically suspicious of any attempt to convince me to give it up in the name of some greater responsibility that has little or nothing to do with my material existence. The ‘irresponsible’ fantasies and inner urges presumed by tragic realism (utopias, lands of Cockaygne, ‘savagery’) are figments of its own foreclosed imagination. As a blogger/pundit (an even greater privilege), my only ‘job’ — which in all but the most exceptional cases can only carry hobby status — is to listen, transmit what I hear, and attack lies told at the expense of those struggling to defend themselves.

This is all potentially useful, and I accept no guilt for voyeurism as such. But I can’t “identify” with the televised other, or “see the world through their eyes.” No revelation of exploitative supply chains, no tearjerking column in the New York Times by an ‘authentic’ refugee, no Oscar-winning independent documentary, and no Facebook group, however informative or compelling, can permit me to be them. The media’s most powerful feature requires so little discernible effort by users as to qualify as its ‘unconscious’ effect, what makes both its truths and lies maximally productive. The power to make your problems look like those of other people, and other peoples’ problems look like yours.


Against the system

Posted in Activism, Capitalism, The French with tags , , , , , on March 19, 2009 by traxus4420

Bruno Latour, a social theorist normally associated with ‘science studies’ (the field for which the Sokal hoax was a reaction) in the U.S., has always managed to catch me flat-footed. It’s embarrassing, really. I shall try to account for my confusion. The first thing one encounters is the style — such a turnoff — what I imagined of a French business writer, chipper, optimistic, and relentlessly punny, like a domesticated Voltaire. But having experienced much worse, I stomached it, and grew to like his work a lot at first. He was the first person I read who looked at science as a social process, and in a way distinct from the more dominant Foucault and/or Bachelard-derived epistemic analyses that were thick on how science worked outside of the laboratory but thin on what went on inside it. And it seemed more grounded in practice than the little from the Anglo-American tradition I’d read — Kuhn, Feyerabend, Bohr. For all these reasons, I think Latour’s best book is still The Pasteurization of France. Philosophically, however, and this is best displayed in that same book (see the long closing section, “Irreductions,” a sort of Spinoza pastiche), his stuff always struck me as a diluted melange of Deleuze and Guattari and Michel Serres, suffering from the same shortcomings while also being much less fun to read.

Basically, everything is an ‘actor’ defined by its relations to a network of actors. Nothing can be ‘reduced’ to or defined in terms of anything else; there is no transcendent level of definition (no ‘ground’ or foundation) to which we can straightforwardly refer phenomena. To understand anything — the discovery of bacteria for example —  we have to follow the process of its construction as an apparently autonomous truth, and reconnect it to the (social) networks that sustain it. All very nice-sounding until one realizes that his definition of power (how does one construction beat out others; how is one explanation more convincing than others) amounts to an abstraction from Francis Bacon: technologies that increase the stability, mobility, and aggregation of knowledge(s) produce what is called power. At the microlevel, however (how there could be such a thing for Latour is another unresolved thread for me), every transaction is ‘symmetrical’; in a vision straight out of the 18th century, immoral, unjust power is always the effect of unthinking blindness or miscommunication, bizarre exceptions to the ideal rule of universal equality for all abstract units.

For a while I thought he was just a harmless social democrat and that I could take his studies of science and ignore the rest as whimsy.

Once I started reading his large-scale analyses of society and the history of European science, my misgivings became both harder to ignore and harder to resolve. The deconstruction of modernity in We Have Never Been Modern was refreshing in a number of ways, not least of which was that unlike Derrida he didn’t feel the need to keep the ‘absence’ of the Grand European Narrative around as a prop or idée fixe. You could just do without it. Then you get to the end of the book and find out he hasn’t actually gotten rid of it, only repressed it (just as Derrida said he would), and we’re left with what sounds like a lot of blather about the forward march of liberalism and the excision of dissent politely veiled by lack of explicit reference.

For those like me who crudely wonder what Latour’s ontology has to do with his politics, this recent piece clears up a lot. His enemy here is Capitalism — not the social relations properly so called, but the Grand Theory Of. Or should we say its hauntological specter, recently transmuted into a zombie horde? How do we (nonviolently) exorcise the demon?:

Thus, the question remains: how is one to take charge of the externalities incessantly produced by the formatting machines of the social sciences?  The answer, here as elsewhere, consists in shifting one’s position, in entering the logic of the formatting regime of the gift that aims at making proliferate the associations, at producing entanglement.  As countless examples from anthropological economy show, the formatting regimes of the gift do not distinguish between what enters the finite exchange and what is indefinite and incommensurable with the exchange, but rather, trace the mobilization of people and things so that there is no end to it, so that the parties never call it quits.  By emphasizing the ties, by insisting on the existence of relations, by producing a memory of associations that is always ready to pop up at the moment of the transaction, the tracing operations of anthropological economy make both the past and that which is distant present.  Following the lead of anthropological economy, both the hard sciences and technology might be mobilized to produce traces and to emphasize ties but without necessarily allowing the calculation, the adding up of relations and exchanges.  Thus the hard sciences and technology make possible, at the same time, both the coexistence of and the disjunction between the regime of the gift and the regime of capital.  All of these mechanisms, by establishing the exteriority of both regimes and by organizing and making compatible the different formatting investments, become the practical answer to the theoretical question at the beginning of this paragraph.  Both the adding up and the proliferation of the associations are at play.  But the adding up operations are not seen as a mutilating reduction of reality, just as the overflow is not the remainder of the lost paradise.  While the adding up operations allow calculating and effective action, the entanglement makes the social body present.

So the rift between capitalists and those denied capitalism’s meager forms of security can be healed by NGOs and shareware? Tell me more!

The eventual coordination of the formatting operations leads to a better appreciation of both regimes.  The virtue of the market is, precisely, that which makes it criticizable in the eyes of the anti-utilitarians: that is, allowing for calculations to take place, facilitating the expression of particular, divergent interests, and multiplying transactions that allow the parties to call it quits.  In this context, the market is like a highly efficient machine that multiplies use values and that makes decentralized plans and the mobilization of resources compatible.  In  contrast, the virtue of the gift is to net social ties by manufacturing attachments, by reinvigorating and extending the associations.  If both formatting regimes are taken together, the question of the social is resolved.  The market exchange individualizes, internalizes, manufactures, and separates calculating, interested agencies which, once the transaction is completed, call it quits; the gift, in contrast, makes the associations proliferate, unerringly linking together a series of existences.  Both hot and cold elements are necessary to the social machinery, and it is the task of politics to adjust this delicate Carnot Cycle.  And here, politics should not be mistaken for the authorities or the government, given that the State is as superficial and as formatted as the market itself.

Such a hypothesis allows us to move away from the calamitous opposition between “the market” and “the State.”  Politics is not a sphere that should be added to the economic sphere—or that, on the contrary, should be wiped away so that the “market forces” are “liberated.”  Politics pop up wherever an agent takes the floor to make the associations proliferate: “We all exist and your existence mingles with ours.  Don’t try to escape, too many ties link us.”  The recent truck driver’s strikewas a case in point: there are thousand ways to make ourselves present outside of the exchange of equivalents, to interrupt the production of internalities so that entanglement is increased, and to avoid that the parties call it quits.  The angry truck drivers were not asking for compensation, they were weaving under our noses the social web in which we are caught with them, thereby demanding that the fragile and provisional balance between the commercial formatting regime and the formatting regime of disinterestedness be reconsidered.

In a similar vein, when Bernard Barataud, the president of the AFM [French Society Against Myopathies], arbitrates between the public agencies, the financial resources coming from collective fund-raising events, and the private investments of the industry in order to decide the allocation of resources to either basic research or the purchase and development of prostheses for the sick, he engages in a most fundamental political task; namely, that of reaching a balance between, and establishing the complementarities of, the different formatting regimes.  This task, in its turn, presupposes endless research about the benefactor’s motivations, their preferences, and their take on the role of public generosity—whether and why it can and must take the place of the State or the investments of powerful industrial companies.

While no social science can take charge of the externalities without participating, sooner or later, in their inscription and internalization, political life can.  What is at stake is not the paralysis of politics by the economic sphere, but rather, a superficial formatting of the interactions that discards an indefinite mass of associations as externalities.  As such, these externalities constitute, so to speak, an always available, ready to be mobilized reserve army capable of complicating—or rather, of implicating—the economy at any moment.  Mobilized by politics, the externalities do not come back in the guise of competing interests but rather as strangers that want to become close, as unexpected consequences that demand to be expected, accepted, and included.  In this context, the modest contribution of the social sciences to the formatting of disinterestedness might be to allow certain actors—by multiplying the traces and indexes that are not susceptible to capitalization—to make incalculable the consequences of a capitalism that is constantly expanding its centers of calculation.  But with the condition, of course, that they get rid of their accountant-like morality—that is, their obsessive calculation of the forces at stake doubled by their moral indignation against all forms of calculation.

It’s hard to seriously respond to this. Apparently capitalism doesn’t have a specific set of determinant organizing principles at all, much less objectionable ones; it’s just a bunch of useful techniques, inappropriately used. Because these (self-appointed) ‘anticapitalists’ are too busy complaining to participate! Why do they keep pretending to be economists? Who are these jokers kidding? Don’t they realize that documenting and measuring exploitation just makes it worse? Anyway, we know they hate math. Each to his proper sphere, etc.

What’s actually interesting here is that the meat of Latour’s argument relies on a curiously abstract version of what roger has been calling “the myth of the myth of the noble savage,” combined with the myth, popular in some circles, of the ignorant capitalist:

The fact that the dis/interestedness of the savage has been a seemingly unending question is best understood if one bears in mind Hutchins’ insight, which is applicable to all forms of calculation and goes as follows: from the collective performance of a gift it is impossible to infer individual competence of the agent.  Just as an agent, without being a calculator herself, is traversed by calculation in capitalist formatting regimes, the same agent, without being herself a donor or a recipient, traversed by the gift in pre-capitalist or anti-capitalist formatting regimes.  The fact of the matter is that one cannot infer from these different performances radically different competencies; both sociology of science and cognitive anthropology prevent us from making such a move.

Insofar as this insight symmetrically applies to primitive “savages” and present-day “capitalists,” it allows us to redefine them both.  Indeed, the same amount of formatting labor is necessary to define a collective act of donation and to de-fine—that is, to terminate—a collective act of exchange.  Such is the central hypothesis of our chapter.  Once the psychology that fills the capitalist world with selfish calculators and the pre-capitalist world with unselfish donors is abandoned, it finally becomes possible to sort out with some precision the true differences between both formatting regimes.  At this point, it may noted that both regimes share a common categorical imperative, which can be summarized by the interdiction “you should not calculate!”; the difference, then, has to do with whatever should not be taken into account by each regime.

This is pretty amazing. Since capitalism for Latour is essentially a bunch of neutral technologies, the rationale imputed to anticapitalists is a misguided belief in the immense skill of individual technicians. So not only is the myth capitalists tell about themselves accepted — that they’re really sort of like scientists, working in small teams and competing to solve social problems — their opposition is criticized for believing it too much. Or as he says a bit earlier, “just because calculations are done in the quasi-laboratories of the economic agencies—the notion of the agent gives too much credit to the individual—one should not inductively conclude that calculating beings actually exist, no matter how much information they have.” That of course they individually do not have magical competence is rather sneakily used to assume an even more absurd level of ignorance on the part of their class as a whole, not only of the distant consequences of their actions (which is defensible), but any reason whatsoever for their behavior (which is not).

(It’s also worth noting that the cognitive scientist whose conclusions he appropriates studies small groups with more or less common interests such as tribes and research teams, not complex large-scale societies made up of structurally antagonistic groups — i.e. classes.)

We can even follow Latour’s advice and look at a case study. Exhibit A: his public stance against protesters and critics of Sarkozy’s neoliberal university reform plan. It begins with the same faulty insistence on symmetry as the starting point of analysis (an a priori if there ever were any) to argue that Sarkozy’s autonomy is the same as Negri’s autonomy. As if the issue were as simple as the university’s liberation from the state, as if the ‘deterritorialzing’ law of the market were merely optional for an institution of its size and makeup, as if Sarkozy’s plan were not engineered to ensure its complete capture. Check the rebuttal here.

But I know you’re all secretly craving moral education, so let’s end with a nice little piece of folk wisdom, as if this were a fable: when considering the relationship between theory and practice, it is probably best not to begin from the point of view of their separation.

On Nonviolence

Posted in Activism, Media, U.S. Politics on March 8, 2009 by traxus4420

Came across this old thing from John Berger a few days ago. Characteristically sharp. The whole thing is great (and short), but this bit stayed with me:

It is in the nature of a demonstration to provoke violence upon itself. Its provocation may also be violent. But in the end it is bound to suffer more than it inflicts. This is a tactical truth and an historical one. The historical role of demonstrations is to show the injustice, cruelty, irrationality of the existing State authority. Demonstrations are protests of innocence.

But the innocence is of two kinds, which can only be treated as though they were one at a symbolic level. For the purposes of political analysis and the planning of revolutionary action, they must be separated. There is an innocence to be defended and an innocence which must finally be lost: an innocence which derives from justice, and an innocence which is the consequence of a lack of experience.

Events in Greece, Iceland, Paris (this is good analysis on Iceland) bring back the question of violence for a predominantly nonviolent U.S. activist culture. But this can only feel like an unprecedented challenge if one forgets Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq — and this is just a few currently active sites — all involve popular armed struggle against violent occupation. If there is a widespread attitude that oppositional politics in the ‘first world’ West have a special mandate not to be violent, whether this is conceived in moral or pragmatic terms, then the U.S. is its center. With ‘unrest’ in Europe, which attacks property, which occasionally throws things at police, a set of class, racial, and cultural distinctions has at least been frayed. Governments seem to be capitalizing on the specter of more serious violence in order to establish the uprisings as ‘riots’ and justify preemptive suppression. They even go so far as to incite violence against themselves. All established practice in the U.S. The most convincing rationale for nonviolence is that the state wants it; violence from any side makes it stronger.

It’s difficult, however, to see how this situation could be permanent. Police and nonviolent demonstrators maintain a precarious equilibrium — the demonstrators reject all violence against people and most against property; the police threaten absolute and crushing violence if any of those edicts are bent. More and more often, the police cross the line at the barest provocation. And if demonstrators never crossed the line, they wouldn’t amount to much more than a parade group, celebrating their right to exist and thereby legitimating their permissive, enlightened government. There are all sorts of good practical reasons for a general policy of nonviolence for activists in most Western nations and many others. But they come down to the ideological fact that violence is morally unacceptable to ‘mainstream liberals’ — whoever they are — and can be relied upon to instantly discredit anyone who uses it without the permission of the state.  Violence can’t ‘work’ in this climate — even to otherwise sympathetic parties it always appears as an excess or at best a mistake.

Zizek’s distinction (warning: extreme bullshit) between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ violence is rephrased in all its essentials by the Joker in The Dark Knight: ‘objective’ violence is “all part of the plan,” ‘subjective’ violence is noticed, identified, attributed to specific agents and subjected to legal and ethical judgment.  But their oft-cited separation is precisely the ideological effect of mass media, not a ‘rigorous’ analytic tool; that most of us in the hypermediated first world get stuck experiencing ‘the system’ and its consequences as ‘ontologically’ distinct phenomena we struggle vainly to establish a relationship between is a symptom of our subjection.

The mainstream PR version of the move to suck everyone into an equivalent sense of ‘responsibility’ for the planet encourages identification with ‘the system,’ bad or good. Solutions then fall neatly within established boundaries, generally involving lots of self-abnegation, the advertising of ‘awareness,’ and the beefing up of NGOs. Its structural ally, often deployed by capitalists (and which Zizek chides ‘terrorists’ for in the video), defers all individual responsibility to ‘the system,’ and reads individual actions as inevitable consequences of ‘the economy’ or ‘heavy pressure from private interests and stakeholders.’ Both rely on the appropriation of the reified product of theoretical activity, the hard-won complexity of its limited, incomplete understanding of the world reduced to an image on a T-shirt. Thus the capitalist elect can avoid accountability and the seizure of their power by invoking ‘socialist’ arguments.

A universal refusal of violence has a debilitating effect on our ability to judge non-Western or even simply non-bourgeois oppositional activity in an adult way, and supplies ideologists with an easy weapon. But this problem is it itself an ideologeme — to try to discern whether it’s ‘really true’ is the question of whether to legitimate it. Attempts by leftist philosophers to theorize more appropriate universal attitudes toward violence — what I can only understand as attempts to integrate recent popular violence into some sort of spiritual substitute for an official Left party policy that doesn’t and can’t currently exist — seem, whatever their position, beside the point and even counterproductive. The proper role of a ‘utopian’ ethics in a structurally unjust class society seems an insoluble problem from within the undemocratic models of academic philosophy, even more obviously so from within the mass media debating societies that on occasion serve as theoria‘s sanctioned parody.

Against the State of Green

Posted in Activism, Environmentalism with tags , on January 26, 2009 by traxus4420

Really good report from the UK Climate Camp here. It’s the best treatment of the difficult and unresolved issues around the green movement, class, and politics I’ve read in a while, not just because of the author’s personal brilliant theoretical synthesis, but because it narrates a live and still very diffuse debate.

This is the real sticking point in the whole controversy, it seems to me:

All of the Climate Campers were at pains to emphasise that they were not hostile to mining communities and were aware of the intrinsic relationship between climate change, class exploitation and capitalism. They also all underlined that they were not ‘official’ representatives of Climate Camp. This was undoubtedly one of the lines that separated the trade unionists from the Climate Campers, the union officials having a much more unproblematic relation to being a representative of the working classes. The Climate Campers were definitely from the more anti-capitalist wing and it might have been interesting had someone from a more single-issue perspective been present. Paul Chatterton, activist and Leeds University academic, gave a well reasoned presentation about the need for a ‘just transition’. After underlining the importance of avoiding a climate change ‘tipping point’ of a four degrees rise, he emphasised that environmentally based politics were ultimately against ‘mindless, ceaseless growth’ in the form of neoliberal capitalism. ‘Just transition’ would share out the costs of climate change equally, through a ‘green new deal’, ecological Keynesianism creating a ‘green collar economy’. This would amount to the re-nationalisation of energy production and a rejection of the market.

I must admit that the concept of a ‘green new deal’ makes me want to strangle the planet with a couple of spare plastic bags. It’s the realist corollary to the utopian elements of Climate Camp, but such an uncritical acceptance of a social democratic solution ignores the problem that capitalist social relations would still remain in place. It would be compatible with the development of an authoritarian, biopolitical state, obsessed with the administration of life. It is quite easy to imagine a dystopian ‘green new deal’ that continued the valorisation of capital alongside a work-ethic based morality all too conducive to the more sanctimonious elements of environmentalism. Chatterton did mention that a ‘green new deal’ might lead to less work and more holidays, a rare acknowledgement that climate change might not necessitate new regimes of scarcity. There is in this a trace of what was missing in the conference, a sense of possibility not embedded in soft focus ‘somewhere else’ utopianism but in an immanent engagement with capital’s apparatus of capture. However, a ‘green new deal’ is unlikely to deliver the kind of simultaneous refusal of scarcity and production that might begin to construct a genuine anti-capitalist response to the exigencies of climate change. It hardly amounts to a critique of wage labour.

Ian Lavery, President of the NUM, underlined the gulf between the NUM and Climate Campers through his refusal to engage with Paul Chatterton’s case for ‘just transition’. Remarking dismissively that he was in the bar during Chatterton’s talk, apparently what was needed was a ‘just transition’ to clean coal. Throughout the conference the NUM’s concentration upon clean coal raised questions about the contradiction of trade unions being not only a bureaucratic appendage to the marketing of labour but also a possible focal point for resistance and the reproduction of communities tied to a particular industry. Lavery’s work ethic was committed to coal rather than a green collar economy. He left shortly afterwards in his big car to go to another meeting. Oh, the life of the full time official.

The focus on new technologies as a general fix for climate change always threatens to introduce a Hollywood blockbuster narrative: ‘And then there was clean coal…’ While the viability of clean coal is in doubt, any present development of it is reliant upon capital being able to extract value from it. The same would go for the development of renewables. It is unlikely that an exclusive focus on technology can really challenge the relation between climate change and the reproduction of capitalism.

Do read the whole thing.