The Common in Revolt
Sunday, August 14, 2011
by JUDITH REVEL and TONI NEGRI
It did not take much imagination, once the analysis of the current economic crisis had been brought back to its causes and social effects, to foretell urban revolts akin to jacqueries. Commonwealth had predicted that already in 2009. What we did not expect, on the contrary, is that in Italy, in the movement, this prediction could be rejected. It seemed in fact, we were told, ancient; they told us, instead: now is the time to rebuild broad fronts against the crisis and establish within the movements forms of organization-communication-recognition to address political representation.
Well, now we are nonetheless facing movements that express themselves in more or less classic insurrectionary forms and yet are everywhere, thus uprooting the old geopolitical grammar within which someone stubbornly kept thinking. What we have is, therefore:
1) A new proletariat, made of precarious and unemployed workers, joins the middle classes in crisis. These are diverse subjects unifying in unusual ways in the struggle, asking, as in the countries of the Southern Mediterranean, new, more democratic forms of government. The political dictatorship of the Ben Alis and the political-economic one of our fake democracies may not be equivalent – although for decades the latter have accurately built, supported, and protected the former – but by now the urge for radical democracy is everywhere and marks a common of struggles emerging from different sides, blending and intertwining, cross-breeding one another’s demands.
2) The very same social forces, those suffering from the crisis in societies with class relationships by now definitely controlled by financial regimes within mixed, manufacturing and/or cognitive economies, are moving across different terrains (first movements of workers, students, and precarity more generally; now complex social movements of the “acampados” kind) with equal determination.
3) The resurgence of movements of pure refusal is crisscrossed by a societal composition as complex as ever, stratified both vertically (i.e. middle classes plunging towards the excluded proletariat) and horizontally (i.e. in relation to different sectors of the metropoles, torn between gentrification and – as Saskia Sassen notices – “Brazilianized” zones, where clashes among gangs start leaving the marks of AK-47 bullets on the walls of those neighborhoods where the sole – dramatic, entropic – alternative to organized struggles is organized crime).
The current English revolts belong to this third kind and are quite similar to the ones that some time ago have affected the French banlieues: a mix of anger and desperation, fragments of self-organization and crystallizations of other kinds (neighborhood associations, networked solidarities, soccer fans’ clubs, etc.) expressing by now the unbearability of lives turned to rubble. The rubble, surely unsettling, these revolts leave behind them is not in the end so different from what the everyday lives of so many men and women is made of today: shreds of life in one way or another.
How can we open a discussion on these complex phenomena from the standpoint of thinking the common? What we argue below has the mere intention to open a space for debate.
First and foremost, it seems to us that we need to debunk some interpretations voiced by the mass media of the ruling classes.
They argue, to begin with, that these movements we are discussing should be considered, from a political point of view, in their “radical” diversity. Now, it is obvious that these movements are politically diverse. But to say that they are “radically” so is simply idiotic. All these movements are, in fact, radically characterized not only because they oppose Ben Ali or other dictators, whatever is the case, or because they denounce Zapatero’s or Papandreou’s political betrayal, or because they hate Cameron or refuse the impositions of the European Central Bank. They are, rather, characterized as radical because all of them refuse to pay for the consequences of the economy and the crisis (nothing would be more mistaken than considering the crisis as a catastrophe striking a fundamentally sane economic system; nothing would be more terrible than nostalgia for the capitalist economy before the crisis), which is to say the huge movement of wealth that is now taking place to the benefit of the powerful, organized as they are in the political forms of the Western regimes (democratic or dictatorial, conservative or reformist alike…).
These are revolts born, in Egypt, Spain, or England, out of the simultaneous refusal of the subjection, exploitation and plunder this economy has prepared for the lives of entire populations of the world, and the political forms within which the crisis of this biopolitical appropriation has been managed. And this is also true for all the so-called “democratic” regimes. Such a form of government appears only preferable for the seeming “civility” with which it masks the attack on the dignity and humanity of the existences it crushes, but the vanishing of political representation is now at the point of collapse. To argue that there are – according to the criteria of Western democracy – radical differences between the representativeness of Ben Ali’s Tunisia and Cameron’s Tottenham or Brixton, is simply to denying the evidence: life has in both cases been so violated and plundered that it cannot but explode in a movement of revolt. Not to talk of mechanisms of repression, which are bringing England back to the times of primitive accumulation, to the jails of Moll Flanders and the factories of Oliver Twist. To the mugshots of youth in rebellion posted on the walls and the screens of England’s cities one should really juxtapose large sized prints of the swinish faces (a variant of the PIGS?) of the bankers and financial corporate bosses that have turned entire communities to that condition, and keep fattening their profits out of this crisis.
Let’s go back to the newspaper’s trivia. They also say that these revolts are different from an ethical-political standpoint. Some would thus be legitimate, as in the Maghreb countries, because there the corruption of dictatorial regimes has led to miserable conditions; the protests of the Italian students or the Spanish “indignados” would still be understandable because “precarity is bad”; the revolts of the English or the French proletariat are, instead, “criminal” as they are allegedly marked by mere looting of other people’s property, hooliganism and racial hatred.
All this is largely false, because these revolts tend – with all the differences among them, which we don’t deny – to have a common nature. They are not “youthful” revolts, but revolts that understand social and political conditions that increasingly large layers of the population consider entirely unbearable. The degradation of the working and social wage has gone beyond the threshold identified by classical economists and by Marx with the level of workers’ reproduction, which they called a “necessary wage”. And now, we dare the journalists to argue that these struggles are produced by excesses of consumerism!
Here comes a first conclusion. These movements can be defined as “recompositional”. They actually penetrate populations – be they workers guaranteed up to now or precarious ones, unemployed or those who have only known odd jobs, improvisation and off-the-books activities – exalting their moments of solidarity in their struggle against destitution. Declining middle classes and the proletariat, migrant and not, manual and cognitive workers, retirees, housewives, and youth are joined in poverty and the struggle to oppose it. Here they found conditions for a united struggle.
Second, it is immediately apparent (and this is what mostly terrifies those who assume consumerist characteristics in these movements) that these are not chaotic and nihilistic movements, that they are not about burning for burning’s sake, that they don’t just want to sanction the destructive potency of an unforeseeable “no future”. Forty years after the punk movement (which on the other hand was, in spite of the stereotypes, passionately productive), these are not movements declaring the end, recorded and internalized, of every future; they rather want to build the future. They know that the crisis affecting them is not due to the fact that the proletariat does not produce – either under a boss or in the general condition of social cooperation by now underpinning processes of capture of value – or does not produce enough, but is happening because they are robbed of the fruit of their productivity; which is to say, they are forced to pay for a crisis that is not their own; they have already paid for healthcare, retirement and public order systems while the bourgeoisie was accumulating for war and expropriating for its own profit. But mostly they know that there’s no way out of this crisis until they, the rebels, don’t handle the power mechanisms and the social relations that regulate those mechanisms. But, one may object, these are not political movements. Even if – the critics add – they expressed politically correct positions (as it has often happened for the North-African insurgents or the Spanish “indignados”) these movements are prejudicially outside or critical towards the democratic order.
Of course, we would like to add: it is difficult if not impossible to find, in the current political order, passages and paths through which a project attacking the current policies for overcoming the crisis can take place. Right and left are, almost always, alike. For the former the wealth tax should hit incomes of 40-50,000 Euros, for the latter of 60-70,000 Euros: is this the difference? The defense of private property, the extension of privatization and liberalization are in the agendas of both sides. Electoral systems are by now reduced to the pure and simple selection of delegates from the privileged strata, and so on and so forth. These movements are attacking all this: are they political or not when they do so? These movements are political because they position themselves on a constituent, not a claim-making, terrain. They attack private property because they know it as the form of their oppression and rather insist on the constitution and self-management of solidarity, welfare, education – in short of the common, because this is by now the horizon for old and new powers.
Of course no one is so stupid to think that these revolts immediately produce new forms of government. What, nonetheless, these revolts teach is that “the one is now split into two”, that the seemingly flawless solidity of capitalism is by now only an old phantasmagoria, which in no way can be brought back together, that capital is immediately schizophrenic and the politics of the movements can only locate itself within this fracture.
We hope that those comrades who believed insurrections to be an outdated tool of autonomist politics will be able to reflect on what’s going on. It is not by wearing ourselves off waiting for parliamentary deadlines but by inventing new constituent institutions for the common in revolt that we can understand together what is to come.
Translation courtesy of: Franco Barchiesi, A Tribe of Moles