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Re: <nettime> A Movement Without Demands?
Brian Holmes on Fri, 6 Jan 2012 02:03:09 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> A Movement Without Demands?

This text is at once challenging and generous: it seeks the core of unfulfilled possibility in every limitation it critiques. Thanks for that.

You say the Occupy movement lacks strong core principles that could serve to define itself as a transformative force in society. I agree. That lack is betrayed in the rhetorical fiction of an overwhelming majority: the 99 percent, which in reality includes not only the cops but also vast armies of technocrats, financial managers, administrators, advertisers, marketers etc, as well as all the working and unemployed folks captured by racism and nationalism. It's clear that however it may define itself, the Occupy movement will have many opponents among those ranks. The initial appeal to everyone but the very top-level ruling class can only make sense in the context of a deliberate effort to forge a broadly appealing but also antagonistic collective will, or at the very least, a new terrain of constructive argumentation around what such a collective will could be. I think that's your strongest point, but it requires some steps you don't go into very much.

For instance, wouldn't it be better to start by identifying grievances -- that is, unbearable problems experienced and named by specific groups of people -- rather than by stating principles and emitting demands? That has been done to some extent (one example is the famous tumblr site) but doesn't the raw expression need some kind of objective analysis and categorization, so that people can see where their own grievances touch those of others? Of course the sociology of individual grievances does not equal a vision or a political project. But it would provide a reality check about everything the current system does not and cannot respond to, so that the more daring and inventive groups could make proposals, debate them and ultimately come to validate some new principles that would be acceptable to large populations.

You also point to two basic contradictions in what used to be called "the Left." One is that many are weary of utopian proposals based on full-fledged critiques of capitalism and tend to revert back to traditional Keynesian demands for taxation of the corporations and state investment in infrastructure, green technologies, education, and health care. The opposite contradiction is that relatively small but very active groups tend to refuse any social-state mediation whatsoever, with the idea that more or less insurrectional moments of general assembly and direct action are concrete prefigurations of a new way to live ("communization").

I agree that in the absence of core principles, we will be condemned to a repeated sequence where the smaller direct-action groups spark transient mass mobilizations that subsequently dissolve -- not just because only a few can maintain permanent militancy and a permanent direct democracy, but also because the division of labor and the social complexity it entails are just too advantageous to be abandoned. Only trustworthy and verifiable principles can articulate a complex division of labor, even if we decide to shrink it from the global proportions it has attained today. The commons we need is also an organizational commons, a way of articulating production and sharing its surplus. But who is this "we"? So far, only the anarchists have been able to constitute a collectivity in which the remanents of the Left can momentarily recognize themselves. Kudos to the anarchists!

The great question, as fundamental as the one that inspired Marx long ago, is how to forge a new, trustworthy and verifiable logic of social organization that is both egalitarian and ecologically sustainable -- and how, at the same time, to create the agency that can gradually impose the new logic against forces that will bitterly oppose it? There's no way to answer through ordered stages. You have to leap into the midst of it, with the beginnings of a conceptual logic and the initial kernel of the social forces that could bring it into reality.

So where to begin? Many have observed that all around the world, the current protests are driven by debt-ridden students and graduates without a future. The precarious middle class, in short ("lost a job, found an occupation"). At the same time, the numbers tell us that the worst-hit are the working and marginalized classes, mostly across the color line. The next big movements could easily look quite different. In all likelihood we are headed toward an even more extensive social crisis.

I think in this context and at this moment there is a potential role for what you could call the intelligentsia (or Gramsci's organic intellectuals) to seize the cultural and technical resources of the university system, while bending both the rules of discourse and the order of bodies, actively looking for different participants and more practical-political ideas. The point is to find a cross-class, multiracial and multigender way of dealing with social complexity -- because that has been the great claim of neoliberalism so far, and there's no way around it, we have to do it better than them. In many respects Liberty Square and all the other occupations are already models for this, prefigurations if you like. What has been gained and defended and some times lost -- but not forgotten -- is a kind of open-air university, the diverse and embodied process of creating a collective will that could come to grips with a complex society. But I think we have to go further.

In 1967, at a moment just before the explosion -- which is maybe a moment quite similar to ours -- Marcuse had exactly that intuition. I just chanced upon his essay on "Liberation from the Affluent Society" where he says this:

"Education is our job, but education in a new sense. Being theory as well as practice, political practice, education today is more than discussion, more than teaching and learning and writing. Unless and until it goes beyond the classroom, until and unless it goes beyond the college, the school, the university, it will remain powerless. Education today must involve the mind and the body, reason and imagination, the intellectual and the instinctual needs, because our entire existence has become the subject/object of politics, of social engineering... The educational system is political, so it is not we who want to politicize the educational system. What we want is a counter-policy against the established policy."


What do you think? Aren't you planning some kind of initiative in that direction? What does anyone else think? What are the most interesting things going on in this sense?

In Chicago we just finished an autonomous seminar at Mess Hall, and I am now looking for collaborators and projects to work on. For those who will be in New York over the upcoming days, there are going to be a series of meetings at 16 Beaver starting on Saturday. We could also talk about it there.

best, Brian

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