Saturday, November 12, 2011

Riot Days, part 2

I return now to the attempted reduction of Badiou's Le Réveil de l’Histoire, tracing the steps he lays out that lead from the historical riot to what is properly political: the emergence of an organization that can preserve the creative force of the riot after the riot as receded, that is, give it a duration, invent a temporality proper to politics. After having differentiated the historical riot from the immediate riot by contrasting the strong localization and qualitative extension of the latter to the weaker variants of the former, Badiou undertakes to formalize these internal logic of the historical riot -- specifically, developing the operations that make it up, contraction, localization and intensification -- while also demonstrating how the figure of political organization addresses the specific task of preserving the creative force of the riot.
 E. The historical riot is first of all characterized, then, by a real change in a determined world. If worlds are, for Badiou, always plural, and if a given world is identified with a particular distribution of quantities of existence to the elements making up that world -- a distribution that is necessarily hierarchical insofar as the distribution it operates orders the beings of a given world into a scale of existences differentiated by their intensity of existence -- then a real change in a given world occurs when what in a given world is assigned a negligible or minimal degree of existence suddenly experiences a leap in intensity, and passes from a minimal to a maximal degree of intensity. In the case of a given political situation, this means that that element of the population which, in the normal state of affairs, is deprived of any capacity for deciding the sense of its world -- which is what the name proletariat has always meant, before its more technical and "objective" determination as he or she who, having no access to the means necessary for reproducing his or her existence, must sell his or her labor-power in exchange for a wage which will then be spent on commodities that will in turn secure his or her reproduction as labor-power -- suddenly assumes an undeniable, and intense, visibility. This visibility is secured, moreover, by the production of the localization that this change requires. Localization produces a very specific type of place: a place, whether plaza, factory, university, or the street, assembled an intense minority that, though only a fragment of the population, stands in for the entire population itself. This is an essential aspect of Badiou's argument. The people assembled in a given square or site are necessarily much smaller, in terms of any objective calculus (the idiom of the representative state and its elections), and yet no one can deny that this minority is not only the people as a whole, compact, contracted into a given fraction, but that this formation has the authority to decide the fate of an entire people, since it bears the truth of this or that people. No one can deny it: it is this moment, when even the media of the oligarchic democracies of the West speak of the "Egyptian people" in referring to the assembly in Tahrir Square, when the general will can be said to emerge and be exercised. The authority conferred on this place and this assembly assumes the form of what Badiou calls a popular dictatorship that has the authority of the general will. This authority cannot be denied by anyone publicly, save at the risk of identifying oneself as a suspect, that is, as an agent of the old order. And this authority, as the authority of a truth or reason itself, is what gives rise to the enthusiasm that courses through these sequences: the same enthusiasm, Badiou asserts, that accompanies a declaration of love or the long-awaited demonstration of a mathematical proof.

F. Given the basic structures or operations of the historical riot or the historical mass movement--
         Contraction: a small minority stands in as the truth of the whole
         Intensification: a fraction of the population with a negligible quantity of existence takes on a maximal charge of existence; enthusiasm
         Localization: the intensification is localized in a place through which the entirety of the situation is refracted and attains a visibility
-- the question is posed as to how these traits can be inscribed in a political process oriented by an Idea. Badiou immediately refers to the figure of the Party here, and identifies contraction with the strict rules of belonging to the Party or not, intensification with the construction of a militant life, and localization and constant attention to the conquering of places, whether they be factories, tower blocks or universities, and so on. Now, what is interesting in this account, and marks the point where Badiou's analysis becomes more programmatic and, seemingly, less attuned to the specificity of the current political conjuncture and its riots, is his affirmation that the Party as an historically determined form or figure of political organization failed to solve a fundamental problem, a problem that was formalized but never quite resolved, even in the most ambitious moments of the cultural revolution: the treatment of contradictions at the heart of the people in a manner not modeled on the Stalinist terror, which confuses the contradictions at the heart of the people with the antagonistic struggle with an enemy.


Riot Days, part 1

Just received Alain Badiou’s short little book from Editions Lignes, Le Réveil de l’Histoire. It does not have the subtitle le temps des émeutes -- the time of the riots, the age of riots, riot days -- but it should. The expression appears on occasion throughout the book, and it is precisely the condition under which the revival or reawakening of History (a term Badiou otherwise has almost contempt for, but I will return to this) that is the ostensible subject of the book can occur. The expression riot days is common enough in French and can refer to any historical moment that occasioned a clustering of riots and more generally what Machiavelli would call tumulti, the seemingly inarticulate, punctual recurrence of often intense “social” violence that never quite resolves itself into what passes for the political, and which in any case, no matter how intense the accumulation of riots, never produces a transformation of the internal logic of the State, much less its negation or withering away. But what Badiou has in mind with the use of this term is the particularly period in French history dating from 1830 to 1834 or thereabouts, an historical moment at the dawn or just on this side of the emergence of the workers' movement which was witness to an sudden surge in the number of popular and worker revolts and actions. This reference is important for Badiou because, to the extent that something like “History” emerges in his text, its definition will be tied to conceiving of the present moment as returning to, or repeating the basic situation and structure of, the levels and form of antagonism seen in Europe in the period between 1830 and, say, the 1850s. This is important for his story. As anyone who has read any of his work knows, for the past thirty years Badiou has constantly characterized the present situation as one of reaction, marked by the decomposition or defeat of the workers' movement and more specifically an exhaustion or saturation of the period of the communist movement he identifies with the Cultural Revolution in China. This period of reaction is, as his more recent work underlines, marks an interval in the life of the eternal or omnitemporal (to use a Husserlian term that does not make me wince as much) communist “Idea”: a period of dormancy, from whose slumber  the recent riots and movements of the Arab Spring, but also the movement of squares in Spain and Greece, the French mobilizations of 2006 and 2010, the London riots of 2011 and, thought it not mentioned in the book, the occupation movement in its most radicalized localization (Oakland) constitute the reawakening. These riots are, clearly, what Badiou has been waiting for. And his identification of this proliferation of riots -- different as they are, a point he takes up at length in the book -- with the riots of the period before the birth of the workers movement and, at another point, the Arab Spring riots with those of 1848 in Europe, serve an obvious purpose for Badiou’s argument: get ready, he is saying, for the opening of a cycle of struggles that will unfold over the course of perhaps a century or two, and will be marked by wave after wave of intensification, in an unpredictable but necessary passage from the riot to the insurrection, from the insurrection to, once again, communist revolution.
           I’m going to try to offer a sympathetic account of this book’s argument, while developing, along the way, and after I've concluded this account, some misgivings or disagreements I have with the book, which I should say up front and in no uncertain terms is one I admire. If only because, in the crudest of terms, what it boils down to is a contemporary philosopher who affirms that to riot is rational, and that the current days of riots, however destructive and seemingly inarticulate they seem to be—the torching of cars and buildings, the looting of shoes—represent the necessary form in which the deep sleep of the communist Idea can be cut short.
          I’ll try, to the best of my abilities, to brutally simply the stages and movement of Badiou's argument as it is presented in the book, before developing what I think are the less compelling, and perhaps incorrect, aspect of Badiou’s position on the riots and the movement of squares, a position which is both in accord with and even determined by his own “speculative” philosophical armature and its key concepts, such as they are found in his two big books of philosophy: Being and Event and Logics of Worlds. More importantly, perhaps, we see traced out schematically in this book two related concepts that have received almost no attention in Badiou’s work thus far, and promise to be at the center of his forthcoming or at least announced Immanence of Truths: History and the Idea. These terms are really only developed in an even minimal way in Badiou’s contribution to the 2009 conference (and subsequent volume) “The Idea of Communism.” The remain relatively larval in their formation. This book represents, then, a second attempt to looping together the three nodes of Idea, History and Politics found in that text, this time with reference to a concrete set of events and the sketching out, if barely, of a movement that sooner or later, in whatever unevenly developed form, will become worldwide.
Here, then, reductively, is the argument Badiou proposes:
A. That, contrary to arguments of the sort made by the likes of Antonio Negri and the post-workerist milieu, the current phase of capitalism presents nothing novel whatsoever: nowhere in the current organization of capitalism accumulation is there the emergence of a collective intelligence, say, that would operate a bifurcation internal to capitalism itself, and propose, in larval form, either the negation of this particular regime of accumulation or the emergence of another society. To the contrary: the current form of capitalist “austerity”--assuming the names and values of, in the old “welfare” states of Western Europe, change, reform and modernization -- is nothing other than a return to "pure" capitalism of the 1850s, characterized by liberalism, financial oligarchy and the facade of parliamentary democracy. What we witness, under the guise of change and modernization, is an “unprecedented regression.” Regression: that is, decomposition, in which a capitalism, having exhausted any novelty it might have once been capable of (and Badiou even salutes the radical force of unbinding capital represents in other places), and now flees its own imminent death by retreating into its own “retrograde fulfilment” of its “essence.” What this regression has given rise to, in turn, is a “popular global uprising” against this regression that resembles the first worker uprisings of the 19th century. This new age of riots signals the “awakening of History.” But in order for this awakening to avoid falling prey to the opportunism and corruption of organizations claiming to “represent” this movement, it is not sufficient to awaken History; we must also resurrect the Idea. The only possibility of a future is a popular initiative rooted in the Idea of communism.
B. Badiou claims that he is Marxist, despite accusations to the contrary. But he makes it quite clear that for him Marxism is neither a branch of, or critique of, political economy, a form of sociology or even a dialectical philosophy. What he calls “real Marxism” is the rational political combat undertaken in view of the Idea of communism, understood—and this is as specific as it gets in the book, and probably as specific as it can be and remain an Idea—as an “egalitarian social organization.” “Real” Marxism is therefore Marxism as a figure of organization that origins in Marxism and passes through Lenin and Mao: it is the organized knowledge of the means necessary to overturn this society and institute another, egalitarian society. Real Marxism is therefore a trajectory, a sequence, composed of problems that solved, resolved or put off as it makes its way. The task of the present is pose new problems that can only be treated by a new figure of organization.
C. We begin the analysis of the riots or, rather, with the Riot in its various forms and the operations and attributes characteristic of each: immediate, latent, and historical.
The Immediate Riot. The Immediate Riot almost always begins with a murder at the hands of the State: Mark Duggan in London, the two boys who died fleeing the cops in France in 2005, even the suicide of the Tunisian vendor, the murder of Oscar Grant in Oakland or, in a variation, the acquittal of the cops responsible for the beating of Rodney King. In London and Oakland, the target is black; in France, the target is almost always black or North African. The riots are undertaken by the youths of ghettos or banlieues; the intensity of the destruction they unleash is oriented by no concept or political horizon. The reaction is always the same: the press and the political classes lament the destruction of property rather the murder of a child. There is a certain invariant structure and sequence these riots deploy: state murder, intense confrontation between popular youth and the police, localization of the riot in the neighborhoods from which these youth come, the looting and burning of commodities (cars, etc.) and symbols of the State (schools, for ex., but also police stations). If we wanted to formalize these characteristics, we would speak of a weak localization (the riots are confined to the terrain of the popular youth) and restricted extension (the riots spread to similar neighborhoods through imitation and copycat competition rather than qualitative transformation). However intense the violence unleashed in these riots may be, the subjectivation they give rise to us weak: it is largely organized around rage with little universalist intention. Finally, for the reasons given above, the immediate riot is necessarily impure as Badiou puts it: they necessarily involve an element of the underworld (le pègre) and criminality and lumpen elements. At this level of its articulation, the riot cannot organize its purification.

The Latent Riot: The latent riot, so-called it would seem because it exhibits many of the traits of the historical riot and could easily have developed into just such a riot had some contingent spark triggered this intensification, is relatively rare in the West. The immediate riot is common enough, even if their frequency is accelerated and compounded in these days of riots. The historical riot, in turn, those for example that result in the deposing of a ruler such as occurred in Egypt and Tunisia, was last seen in Iran in 1978, that is, at the very end of the historical sequence that first emerged with the riot days of the 1830s in Europe. In any case, if the historical riot has not been seen in the West for over thirty years, the mobilization in France against the reform of retirement laws stands as an example of the riot that is latent. This mobilization, however contained it ended up being by the representative organizations leading it, nevertheless contained traces of the forms of action expected in historical riots, not least the deployment of slogans like “Sarkozy, get out of here!” and tactics whose radicality (like the blockading of refineries) far exceed the content of the mobilization or whose forms of action (like the strike par procuration and the "free strike") produced "shared localizations" between different parts of the population, constructing places that articulate relations between different social strata: the condition for a new popular unity and subjectivition.
[The strike par procuration, as I understand it, consists in a strike that is brought about in a particular place of work not by the workers themselves, who technically remain on the job and therefore are legal not on strike, but by an outside contingent that prevents the workers from performing their labor. This form of action, which occurred recently in the recent “general strike” in Oakland with the blockading of the port on Nov. 2, has the effect of breaking the classical assumption that the affairs of a given site of work is somehow “private” and a matter concerning those specific workers alone, while also effectively conjugating a worker occupation—the workers remain on site—with a worker strike—the workers withdraw their labor. A grève gratuite is an action in which workers remain on site but do not charge for the services they render: transportation employees refuses to take tickets from passengers, for example. Both of these variations on the strike were witnessed in 2010 in France, and have been deployed in the various mass mobilizations occurring there since 1995.]
The Historical Riot: If the immediate riot is characterized by what Badiou calls a weak localizationrestricted extension—the riots remain confined to the neighborhoods of that segment of the people affected by the triggering murder by the State, and spread only by means of imitiation—and if the immediate riot, for these reasons, engenders only a weak subjectivation (intense, but confined to affective, to rage and its unleashing) and a duration that lasts, at most, only 3-5 days, the historical riot, to the contrary, exhibits the following characteristics: the construction of a durable place not confined to the terrain of the popular youth, who it should be recalled are largely young men, and the emergence of a qualitative extension or displacement of the riot, that is, its appearance outside of the site and neighborhoods of the State murder. The place that is constructed is often in a city center (Tahrir square), the demonstrators are largely peaceful, and they include sectors of the population other than young men from the popular districts: woman and even the aged begin to appear on the scene. This crowd, gathered together on the square, composed of all strata of the population, this minority, even if it numbers in the hundreds of thousands, even if it is a million deep, is necessarily only a small fraction of the population: and yet it comes to stand for, count as, the whole population. and a
D. History and Idea, first pass. It is at this point that Badiou makes a distinction that will organize the rest of the book as it develops the internal characteristics of the historical riot and begins to trace the path, lay out the necessary conditions for, a passage from the riot to the insurrection, that is, to politics: it distinguishes between the mere “awakening of History” and a politics oriented by the sharing of an Idea. This distinction is decisive, in part, because it will be deployed in Badiou's verdict on the first phase of the historical riot in Egypt: however massive the mobilization there was, and however astonishing its victory, a mass mobilization that is historical in nature will only ever result, if it is not seized by an Idea and does not give birth to an organization that give a duration to the fundamental structures of the historical riot, in elections. Between the awakening of History and the resurrection of the Idea, from the consolidation of an historical riot to the organization of a revolutionary politics: this is only made possible by the real subjective sharing of an Idea. Only a new, strong Idea, will allow the mass movement to open onto a new figure of organization and politics, and save the riot from the snares of the State: elections.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Movement of Squares and the Time of Riots: R&D on the Commune

A recent analysis signed by Research & Destroy -- the same name under which the Fall 2009 "Communiqué from an Absent Future" (, a text anticipating, framing and to some extent inspiring if not inducing the sequence of UC student occupations that Fall -- offers a reading of the present moment as the convergence, without articulation, between the movement of squares on the one hand, and the punctual but relentless eruption of riots, whether in Athens, London or Oakland, on the other. The title of the text, its lack of syntactical linkage, makes this lack of articulation clear: "Plaza -- Riot -- Commune." And yet the existence of a third term, a term which is not mentioned even once in the text itself -- that term is "Commune" -- proposes a very precise dialectical linkage between the "affirmative" yet still largely toothless or symbolic experimentation in mutual aid witnessed in the plaza occupations in Spain or the US occupation movement, and the necessary, but potentially inconsequential blowout of the contemporary metropolitan riot.

What is most characteristic of the present situation -- one defined by the retreat of the workers movement, the disarticulation of the promised "partnership" between capital and labor, a particularly brutal assault on worker power under the name of austerity, and the probable blessing represented by the total decomposition and defeat of the Left, understood as the party proposing to manage the social production of wealth otherwise -- is an almost complete disconnection between the tactics and means deployed by anti-austerity struggles and the actual content of these struggles themselves. R&D start out from a basic premise: even the most minimal reforms, even the dampening of the bulldozing push of austerity, will require levels of antagonism formerly manifested only in the most insurrectionary situations, with the mechanisms of state power themselves in the balance. The recent mobilization against the reforms of retirement laws in France -- a mobilization which saw reformist unions blockading the petroleum refineries, for example -- bear witness to this dissociation of means and ends, this out of jointness between the form of struggle and its content. If the Left somehow was the name for the calculus which, through the forms of organization it developed, measured the appropriateness of specific tactics and the political prize they were meant to bring about, it is precisely this articulation that is missing in the present.

The lack of any articulation between the movement of squares -- with its "affirmative" experimentation in mutual aid, in the sharing of what is common and the desire to build the capacity to provide for the satisfaction of our needs -- and the virulence of the recent riots (riots which are, it should be underlined, very common outside of the most "developed" economies of Western Europe and North America), with their rage and their immediacy, the fury with which they carry out the burning of cars, buildings and banks and the looting of shoes, computers and video games points to a weakness or contradiction at the heart of each, their mirror abstractness: the simple positing of common without means for meeting them, and the intensity of a negation which, reduced at times to the most frontal and immediate confrontation with state violence in the form of the cops, is incapable of transforming itself into a determinate negation, meets its own limit in its very form. 

Where we find ourselves, then, according to the piece, is caught between these moments or poles: the affirmation without bite of the plaza, the fury without consequence or consistency of the riot. The localization of the current "occupation" movement in the US in public squares -- these dead spaces that replace the Athenian agora with "vast pours of concrete and nothingness" -- and even in the more polarized and developed movements in Athens and Cairo, announces the emergence at the point of separation between the political and the economic: this is why it can only proposes the satisfaction of needs and the production of commons without the capacity to bring it about. The intensity of the riot, its taste for fire and need to bypass requisitioning in favor of ash, its feeling that it is only happening when it is confronting or outwitting, here and now, the riflebutts and barrels of the state, is what blinds it to the necessity of the commune. The commune is that real point where the production of the common and the sharp edge of negation coincide. It is the where the cultivation and construction of new forms of life will occur through the expropriation of what is already ours, not because we made it, but because we need it: satisfaction.

The Riots are Coming

In a set of comments to a text by Brian Holmes over at the site, a mysterious "Jane" lets us in on a secret that is now, following the recent streetfights in Oakland -- battles that will, for better or worse, be continuing, with an increasingly radicalized occupation that, hardened by the relentless barrage of flashbang grenades, teargas and rubber bullets, knows that it can stand in the streets and bang with the most naked exhibition of state violence -- now out of the bag: the riots are coming.

"Austerity isn’t temporary, and it isn’t new — the current model has simply been moving toward the OECD and the US from what we used to call peripheral economies since the Seventies if not before. Or to put this all anther way: *the riots are coming*. Only in the US and perhaps Germany is that not totally obvious. They will come fitfully, and will of course appear to be about local and/or incoherent causes without any historical continuity or purposes, as in the banlieues and Tottenham. They will nonetheless be part of a great historical continuity, just as we can place the real and regional specifics of Tahrir and Pakistan and etc also within a historical continuity: the inability of the US-led regime to magnetize the globe toward its own interests."


"So, in closing, I guess I could offer the following précis: the political-economic question is not 'how do we get a better distribution of social surplus?' The real political-economic question is, 'What is one’s orientation toward the riots?' Being for or against them, for or against militancy, is a non-question. It is *already* a militant situation."

If there was any question as to the nature of the situation, the actions of the OPD and the other 17 -- and no less -- agencies involved in the attack on Oscar Grant Plaza and its expansion into the build environment have surely answered it for you: it is indeed a militant situation, and whatever the response of those implicated in the situation, the only answer the cops will have be bullets, rubber or live.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A plea for a communist philology

Reading, for the first time, Blanqui's "Instructions pour une prise d'armes," a delightfully detailed -- with very precise drawings of the barricades to be built during the coming insurrection, as well their tactical deployment -- manual of insurrection written in 1866 that analyzes, in terms almost exactly those of Lenin when talking stock of the reasons for the failure of the Paris Commune in 1871, the reasons for the smashing ("like glass") of the 1848 insurrection (they lacked "organization," in a word) and, having done so, lays out, step-by-step, the building of combat formations, their intervention into the urban infrastructure, and the types of weapons and tactics most efficiently deployed under these conditions. What struck me, then, and this in the very first pages, was Blanqui's account of the problems and opportunities, at the level of tactics, of street fighting, by Haussman's reconfiguration of the Parisian urban fabric in the aftermath of the battles of 1848. Anyone who has read a page of Walter Benjamin's account of this strategic rediagramming of the city might assume that these enormous knife cuts through the heart of Paris and its working class quartiers -- I am speaking, first of all, of the "grand" boulevards and their opening up easy circulation of troops between barracks and the points of proletarian aggression as well as their function as perspectival lines that draw together the city into a single look -- spelled the end of an entire epoch of worker struggles and the tactics proper to them. They were meant, after all, to "secure the city" against civil war and, we are told by Benjamin, to make the erection of barricades impossible. But Blanqui sees this reconfiguration of the urban environment as posing advantages to the party of insurrection, that is, dangers to the forces of social order:

"For example, something we should not count as one of the new advantages of the enemy is the strategic thoroughfares which now furrow the city in all the directions. They are feared, but wrongly. There is nothing about them to be worried about. Far from having created a danger for the insurrection, as people think, on the contrary they offer a mixture of disadvantages and advantages for the two parties. If the troops circulate with more ease along them, on the other hand they are also heavily exposed and in the open."

Whether this assessment will turn out to have been correct is another matter.