Saints and Sinners: #OccupyLSX

I’m currently preparing a piece for Sophie‘s Journal of Occupied Studies, focusing primarily on the flaws of the #Occupy movement in London, and especially considering the Bloomsbury Social Centre as a critical intervention in the kinds of discourse and tactics that have characterised OccupyLSX as it has progressed over the last three months. The below section, more-or-less excised in my redraft, and somewhat modified here, touches on the curious religious aspect to the occupation.

Camp Apocalypse and a Politics of Saints and Sinners

The differing political histories and cultures of the US and UK have meant a particular scission in the matter of religion: whereas religious affiliation and demonstration of piety plays a substantial role in US public life, Alistair Campbell’s rebuke to an American journalist during an interview with Tony Blair – ‘We don’t do God‘ – largely characterises the British political attitude to religion. Despite frequent attestations to the value of ‘faith groups’ in government policy, religion is largely something that happens away from government, and the language of the pulpit is far-removed from the anodyne technê preferred by the denizens of Westminster. The influence of communist and socialist movements in Europe in the twentieth century have made the mention of God doubly verboten in extraparliamentary politics on the Left, though the occasional Catholic Worker or Quaker will be found on demonstrations and direct action, especially in anti-war campaigns. The evacuation of formal religion from the political sphere, and especially the left, has left behind a number of problems in its wake, as well as its obvious benefits: the rise of a washy transcendental and ill-defined ‘spirituality’, a failure to understand (as Marx did) the consolatory historical function of religious thinking, as well as the re-emergence of a kind of religious thinking under another name in the guise of politics.

It makes it seems strange, then, that OccupyLSX should have so obvious a religious dimension: not only in its establishment of a faith working-group, but in the meditations that have sometimes preceded its general assemblies, its establishment of a meditation tent, its mooted ‘ring of prayer’ to resist a potential eviction, and its frequent banners and arguments about ‘what Jesus would do‘. Of course, some of this – perhaps even much of it – could be a strange osmosis from the Cathedral grounds in which the camp sits, the early media storm over its treatment of the occupiers, and the subsequent resignation of its Canon Chancellor Giles Fraser in objection. The sediment of reaction that gets stirred up when we shake the leavings of religion can also be seen in the ‘Root Out Usury’ banner that hung over the entrance to the camp for some time, a dim echo of the antisemitism so often a feature of the junction between Christianity and politics. But, more than the formal religious dimension, which is as often a kind of rank kitsch as it is a serious attempt at blending the political with the theological, I am interested in the currents of what one might deem religious thinking within #OccupyLSX. These might be broadly seen as three strains: a kind of messianism, an attempt to prefigure a new kind of community, and a martyrological political schema. These three are not discrete: each informs the other.

As mentioned above, the curiosity of the religious mode in contemporary politics in the UK cannot be overemphasised, and they fit far more closely in the US than here – the commingling of religious and political thought being one of the frequent markers of what Hofstadter called ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics‘, a style perhaps ever more evident in moments of crisis. Is there a ‘paranoid style’ in the Occupy Movement? The discourse of ‘the 99%’ broaches on the question of class, without ever articulating it as such, and points out profound inequality in the distribution of wealth without explicitly dealing with the causes of such distribution. With such a lacuna in economic explanation, a variety of causal chains jostle for attention, from the partly true (the close interrelation of the finance industry and the political class) to the outlandish and conspiratorial. What unites these explanations is their special focus on the agency of a few individuals. Hofstadter: ‘The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).’ In the discourse of the 99%, this agency also becomes a question of moral culpability, that bankers or politicians are perpetrating a moral outrage, and this statement becomes sufficient as an explanation – that there is something morally corrupt in the choices of politicians and bankers, a consequence of which is suffering, injustice and poverty. What is distinctive about this is that it refocuses the critique of the systemic to the individual agon of the soul – a fine subject for tragic drama, but not, perhaps, a comprehensive politics.

When I mention a ‘messianism’ involved in #OccupyLSX, I do not mean that it has at its centre a cult of personality (or that, if it does, that personality is the empty frame of the ideal human being); instead that it possesses a certain orientation to the political event and community of the elect that might be called ‘messianic’. This is not to say that this is a potential Waco or Jonestown – it isn’t. But in the absence of any formal leader or charismatic icon, there exists a tendency to enshrine organisational process as the mode that distinguishes the Occupy encampment from the form of political organisation that constitutes the society around it: as David Graeber has pointed out, this kind of process has been deeply attractive for many who feel their voices are not listened to in conventional ‘democratic’ structures. It remains true, however, that this process has its roots in religious thinking, and, specifically, in the belief that the divine spirit (in Christianity, the Paraclete) will visit the process of assembly, often as a ‘still small voice’ in the hearts of its participants, to allow the consensual truth to emerge in its process. What happens when we remove this transcendental guarantor from the process? How does that process then come to terms with the discomfiting reality that there are, in all likelihood, conflicting and incommensurable political ideologies and desires private to each participant? How, even more so, when the population of the camp is frequently transitory, the people at the general assembly changing from day-to-day? The process itself is an object of faith.

It is important to note that what I am calling a kind of ‘messianism’ here – a zealous belief in the transformative nature of process, but also a form of political action characterised by a waiting for the arrival of the event – is distinct from the invocation of the theological figure of ‘The Messiah’ in Walter Benjamin’s Theologico-Political Fragment and its later development in the work of Agamben. It’s impossible to briefly summarise this figure without traducing it, but it may suffice to say that, for Agamben, the figure of the messianic is not a figure of distinction and election, but one in which the distinction of the sacred is inoperative; further that messianic time is not a time of waiting, and certainly not one into which a decisive, transformative event is projected into the historical future. (A further examination of this concept might explore Agamben’s assertion that the Messiah ‘is the figure in which religion confronts the problem of the law.’) This is precisely what the Occupy camp is not: it is a project of severance, waiting on the transformative intervention of a supreme political event, the character of which is indeterminate (for some, reform, for others, revolution, for others still a ‘general change… in how we humans treat each other.’). This waiting that characterises the camp at St Paul’s – the sense that one has stumbled on the camp at the end of the universe – brings to the fore the two other religious themes I want to touch on: prefiguration and martyrology.

The prefigurative aspect of #OccupyLSX is perhaps its most obvious attempt at transformation of its participants: drawing on the long tradition of prefigurative politics on the activist left, it attempts to reimagine and live a different kind of community. Like all prefigurative projects of this kind, it runs into obvious problems, for instance the hovering question of what it is trying to prefigure. It is an old objection, but nonetheless true, that there is no outside of capital to live in, that any such project is inevitably composed of human beings living in capitalist society, and that its prefiguration of other ways of being will inevitably run up against the difficulties of food, shelter and ways of relating to each other under capitalism. This is not per se an objection, but a recognition that there is no ‘elect’ who live outside of these norms. There is, of course, a long history of occupation and prefiguration in England – the Levellers being the most famous example – but it is salutary that the political and religious-millenarian aspects of these projects are frequently inseparable.

A sign currently hangs at St Paul’s informing its visitors that the camp is no longer occupying, but ‘guests’ of St Paul’s Cathedral. Earlier in this essay I discussed the transition between ‘Occupy’ as a verb, suggesting an action taken to contest the ownership of space, and ‘Occupy’ as a noun, as now bandied about by many who see themselves as part of this movement. This reification is not without significance here: in no longer seeking to contest the concept of ownership explicitly, and accepting the necessarily conflictual relationship this implies with civil power, ‘Occupy’ comes to stand for the individual relationship to, on the one hand, a series of mutable and shifting political beliefs, but (far more obviously and extensively) a marker of personal participation in one of the camps. This shifts the locus of meaning, again, to the question of the individual’s particular moral-political status, and, beyond that, locates the camp’s significance in its ability to bring about personal transformation rather than exert pressure for structural change. This is most obvious in the reframing of traditional discourses about revolution around personal behaviour, the preponderance of ‘reLOVEution’ and ‘revolution through evolution’ signs being the most crass and obvious of these. The parallels with the question of grace in Christian theology can be glimpsed at various points here.

I discussed above the question of sovereignty, and the model of the general assembly as a potential state-form, casting its participants in the form of citizenry; equally the emergent and inherited structure of ‘working groups’ as replicating a relationship to labour less distinct from post-Fordist work than might be initially apparent. It is obvious, also, that a commitment to full participation in the camp requires a severing from the norms of social and productive life under capital: in other words, a withdrawal from work and even perhaps choosing to live in the camp full-time. This is manifestly not an option for all who might sympathise with the movement, but nor do I want to argue that this in itself (i.e., the choice or necessity of a marginal life) is politically doomed. Instead, I want to suggest that this choice tends towards a model of the occupier as citizen-martyr, both in the obvious sense of an embrace of suffering, but also in the sense of rendering its participants as exemplars of a new life. The former can be dealt with pretty rapidly: many of the speeches given by participants and supporters of the movement have focused on the suffering of its participants as testifying to the fervour with which they seek political change – ‘…These people, suffering in the cold for us’. This, mixed with the rhetoric of nonviolence, is not an uncommon feature of protest movements, its most obvious referent being satyagraha; its practical conclusion can be found in the protestation ‘if we sit down and meditate in front of them when the police come, then we win, even if they beat us.’ The logic of this is that it transforms the violated protester, mediated through the lenses of photojournalists, into an exemplar of moral triumph over the forces of oppression, thus inspiring further resistance.

Martyrology – from μάρτυς, meaning ‘witness’ – has always meant to transform individual lives into paragons of inspiration, both in the libidinal investment in lurid torture, and the strength of testimony surpassing any concern for personal safety. This making of martyrs is at the centre of the zealous adherence that has characterised many of the longer-term occupiers, in some cases even leaving behind their jobs and relationships to ‘work’ full-time at the camp. The history of martyrology presumes the perfectibility of the human being, the community of the sainted elect acting as witness in unredeemed time to the possibility of a redeemed future – a politics of the New Jerusalem. One may justly pause to wonder what kind of trauma this expectation of perfection and suffering leaves on the psychic lives of occupiers, or inject a note of realism in saying that the obvious failings of the Occupy camps, from sexual violence, to the excrudescence of reactionary politics, to the high proportion of conspiracy theorists cannot be brushed under the carpet. The natural consequence of seeing the physical existence of the camp and its participants as a testimony to the moral force of its argument is the habit of dissociating it from anything troubling rather than attempting to deal with it – or to deal with it by attempting to refine the rules whereby it runs. Equally, in viewing the camp and its participants as attesting to its truth, much political energy is expended in the simple task of its reproduction – i.e., in keeping it running, for its value as a testament.

This mode of politics naturally sets itself no time limits: it is a politics of waiting for victory. It is, perhaps perversely, the religious spirit rather than formal theological doctrine that is at question here – having receded from the scene, even the question of, say, salvation through works is not in argument here. Instead, a political messianism without religious content, but with religious tenor, holds sway. It is not that there are not figures in history who have drawn on religion to make a political point (Froissart quoting the Priest John Ball in the English Peasants’ Revolt: ‘Good people, things in England cannot work, nor will they until wealth is shared equally; until there are neither peasants nor noblemen and we are all united. Why are these men, whom we call lords, masters over us? What have they done to deserve this? Why do they keep us in servitude?’) But that the religious mode within politics, and especially its attendant discourse of moral victory and passivity are trends that do not deserve to go unexamined.

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On Total Policing

Last night I attended a lecture given by Bernard Hogan-Howe, current commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, on ‘Total Policing’, the new and rather sinister term for the philosophy of policing guiding his leadership of the Met. I’ve touched on some of its implications for protest and political action before; this is a series of brief thoughts on what Hogan-Howe laid out last night. It’s important to note that under the rubric of ‘communication’, the commissioner is doing a lot of similar talks in various parts of London – as Zoe Stavri points out here, these are largely exercises in Met corporate PR, with little in the way of substantive engagement. At the LSE last night, despite the audience of jobbing police consultants, timid de-clawed academics and monosyllabic coppers on CPD, he did encounter a little more in the way of dissent. So, some thoughts:

‘Total Policing’

The phrase is empty. Hogan-Howe was quick to stress that his ambition for the Metropolitan Police was ‘to be the best’ – that he didn’t know how to be ’23rd of 44′ forces. Ignoring the gruesome Apprentice-style tone of the platitude, one has to ask: best at what? Throughout the lecture this central question occasionally emerged from the the managerial fog, only to sink again without trace. Some of the shapes we saw loom through the consultancy-speak:

  • ‘Total Policing’ is a calque of Dutch ‘Total Football’, more or less suggesting that fixed roles of particular officers will be subordinated to a professional flexibility: i.e., officers can move fluidly between functions. Above and beyond this, the ‘Total’ concept suggests a dissolution of departmental boundaries, promoting the flow of information, quick reactivity, and, especially, ‘communication’ (Hogan-Howe’s favourite word) between different departments of the police. In this focus on flows of information, the commissioner is on-trend with the latest in barren management consultancy-speak, but we can also detect the traces of a police response to the currently celebrated ‘network’ model of organisation.
  • Total Policing is about tactics that ‘work’. ‘Work’ in achieving what? Hogan-Howe cites the doubling of the prison population since the 1990s as evidence of success. These tactics constitute a ‘total war on criminals’, though what this means, in effect, is a total war on anyone the police want, expect or need to be a criminal. The commissioner talks about no longer spending a long time gathering evidence, but ‘persuading’ a magistrate to allow them to ‘put a door through’ and have a look. The magistracy is paraded as a ‘check’ on police powers; anyone who’s met a magistrate may feel rather less confident. Some egg on the face for the commissioner: having gathered ranks of photographers and the execrable Mayor of London for just such a raid, the cops failed to find anything, but had a thoroughly good time smashing down a door and invading people’s homes.
  • Total Policing is composed of several points: ‘total war on criminals’ as above, also ‘total care for victims’, a ‘totally professional’ force and an increasingly total use of technology. The commissioner was a little short on what ‘total care’ might mean, other than feeling that they ought to ‘do something’ for them; presumably the rise of ‘total professionalism’ is crucial PR in the wake of phone-hacking, police bribery and the daily grind of police racism. The use of technology, however, is the most interesting. Hogan-Howe cites technology as being able to do things that human beings can’t do, i.e. retain lists of data and quickly match these up. His citation was automated numberplate recognition, which will apparently reduce burglary by flagging up burglars’ cars and reducing their mobility. However, it will also crack down on uninsured vehicles, leading to their confiscation; the network of permissions, proper papers and routine identification grows a little tighter. This automated surveillance and criminalisation is a significant part of Total Policing, only likely to increase in periods of reduced police spending.


The commissioner is fluent in the patter of management consultancy. Thus we were treated to a disquisition on the benefits of the team, and an examination of ‘performance culture’. Managerial technique is everything: the kind of programme one might expect from a man with both an MA in Criminology and an MBA. But what’s the purpose of this? The language of consultancy serves to mask reality: it’s as much what it allows one to avoid naming as it is a model to describe organisational structure. Hence not once did the word ‘racism’ pass the commissioner’s lips, instead presenting us with a mild confusion about why ‘more black and minority ethnic’ people are stopped and searched by police. Hogan-Howe professed to be unable to account for why this was the case, in an incredible act of gymnastics managing to even nod to the elephant of police racism lumbering quite obviously through the room. Similarly, any question of police violence fell muted behind an impervious wall of information flows and communication through mass media. The political uses of this kind of language may seem obvious to many of us, but it’s worth stating its purpose: firstly we have the impervious ontological categories of ‘criminal’ and ‘victim’ (the former at this point being anyone the police suspect, the latter rather hesitantly and ambiguously defined), secondly, any issue on which the police might be held to account is not a problem of agency (i.e., the police bear no culpability for racism or political violence) but simply an incorrect flow of information, communication or community engagement. It is a rhetoric of evasion.

Stop & Search / s.60

It is worth restating that the commissioner essentially sees the purpose of the police service as putting people in jail. It is worth restating, also, that under Hogan-Howe’s first experiment in Total Policing in Liverpool, Stop and Search figures rose from 1,389 in 2004 to 23,138 in 2009. With the Stephen Lawrence case recently in the news, and the August riots fresh in our memories, stop-search powers are once again under a critical public eye. With the wave of a hand, the commissioner dismisses the palpable feeling from the LSE/Guardian report that the police routinely harass black and minority ethnic men, and that, for all the talk of gangs, the police are by far the biggest gang in London. As a counter to this, he tells us that the police are soon to announce a new strategy on gangs, and soon to issue their own report on the August riots. Doubtless it will make thrilling and incisive reading: rather weakly, the only comment Hogan-Howe had to make on the riots was that nobody could fully understand them. Perhaps true, but one might think to mention that the police shot someone, lied about him through their press bureau, and shrugged this off as de rigueur.

On stop and search powers in particular, Hogan-Howe couldn’t account for the vast disproportion in ethnicity searched, but intimated (particularly odiously) that this might be something to do with the makeup of the ‘street population’ – whereas someone like him, of course, and by extension his audience at LSE, would be at home of an evening with his feet up. The questions that followed about stop / search allowed him to talk extensively about his passion for ‘lateral entry’ – i.e., the entrance of black graduates to higher levels of the police force without having to work their way up to the ranks. The logic here is that greater representation will reduce police racism. One might quibble with the logic of representation, certainly, and further suggest that perhaps recruiting from the graduate class doesn’t tackle issues of class and poverty, which are also significant here. Beyond this, however, the commissioner let slip in the response to questions on race that the record of disproportion was far greater in s.60 searches than in s.1. The difference here is that s.60 is a blanket search power, in which no suspicion is required to conduct a search, whereas under s.1, reasonable suspicion is required. So, ‘reasonable suspicion’ acts here as a brake on police racism, as when it isn’t required, racial prejudice is in full flow. In an era where s.60 powers are being more widely granted and for longer duration, one might think this is cause for concern. The commissioner evidently doesn’t.

Total Policing and Public Order

The impact of Total Policing on public order situations – the rubric under which all political demonstrations now fall – is where its ‘total’ nature is most visible. It’s therefore not surprising that the following question, or something much like it, was asked of Hogan-Howe:

Commissioner, you mentioned that during a period of recession, people are more likely to protest, and that you see the role of the police as being balanced between the rights to democratic expression and the right of people to go about their business unimpeded. We probably saw the first manifestation of public order policing in this vein in the student demonstrations on November 9th, with protesters hemmed in by portable police barricades, stopped every ten minutes, random searching, many plainclothes officers, and funneled down backstreets where no-one could see the demonstration. On November 30th we saw the erection of steel walls across Trafalgar Square and the confiscation of placards in inappropriate zones. Is this what the right to protest and express dissent looks like under Total Policing?

The answer was, in essence, yes. The justification for this was that no ‘violence’ occurred on those demonstrations, and that, well, we wouldn’t like it if protesters came an invaded our homes, would we? (The mention of Millbank was greeted with a raucous cheer from the gallery.) The assertion ran something like this: there were people intent on violence on that demonstration, no violence happened, therefore the policing was justified and a success. This is curious: it’s good to know that the commissioner’s surveillance now extends as far as people’s private intentions, but the evasive sidestepping is instructive. Despite having talked about a ‘balance of rights’ in his lecture, when the difficult questions emerged about the effective suppression of one of those rights, the commissioner slides into talking about (potential, hypothetical) violence and its failure to manifest as a success of and justification for the policing operation.

Public order in 2012 is the focus for the commissioner’s conversation about ‘challenges’ facing the police force. He mentions that he views the role of the police in the Olympic and Royal Jubilee period as being that of a referee in sport – that is, acting largely invisibly but controlling the order of the game. The unprecedented police powers and securitisation of London during this period should give an idea of what this invisibility will look like: invisibility through ubiquity. The extension of the public order logic and spectre of terrorism allowed him the following formulation: though we have no intelligence of terrorist threats to London during the Olympics, we wouldn’t want to look back in retrospect and say we could have done more to prevent an (entirely hypothetical) incident. Thus, Total Policing.


Many people emerged from the lecture wondering about whether Total Policing was just entirely vacuous managerialism, whether Hogan-Howe, for all his slipperiness, was much like any other police manager. I don’t think this. It’s certainly true that ‘Total Policing’ is a pliant phrase, that it can come to mean whatever one wants it to mean. But for Hogan-Howe’s operation it clearly means the following: it is ‘total’ insofar as there is no ‘outside’ of policing, that policing should extend thoroughly to all domains of life. It is ‘total’ insofar as it uses surveillance, data-gathering and information culture to effectively criminalise a substantial proportion of society. It is ‘total’ insofar as it even extends to the imagination: the inculcation of imaginary or threatened irruptive violence legitimates all kinds of pre-emptive securitisation and police powers. Behind the jargon and sheen of management consultancy lies a very simple desire to extend the power of the police to regulate and order all forms of public life. Total Policing is arriving sleekly and quietly; it seems we should be making some noise about it.

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Survival: on Nanni Balestrini

On a wall in a city in Italy is scrawled a graffito: ‘Leggete Nanni Balestrini’ – ‘Read Nanni Balestrini’. It brings you up short: an imprecation to read an avant-garde novelist is not something you often see written in spray-paint. Graffiti is all about staking an urgent claim to something unacknowledged, most often and most simply that you were there. Here, it is Read Nanni Balestrini. Why? Balestrini’s recently republished novel of Autonomia, The Unseen, gives some idea.

The Unseen is a novel determined by history. It was written and published ten years after the Years of Lead; as such it cannot end other than it does, in the brutalities of state repression and imprisonment. But it recovers, too, the exhilaration of the early years of Autonomia, and rejects sententious or easy moralising about the struggle. Such refusal of the simple position of literary pentito caused Balestrini no end of problems: many publishers rejected the novel for its violence, and its eventual publication by Bompiani occasioned a generalised wringing-of-hands across the Italian literary press over the novel’s failure to accord with the new consensus on Autonomia – that it was critically and ideologically impoverished, that it was the ineluctable progenitor of terrorism, that it was (above all else) out of harmony with the appropriate way of conducting politics.

Literary reactionaries abound, of course, especially among the ‘avant garde’, and though it’s easy to get the impression that the Autonomist period was freighted with dozens of intellectuals and writers involved with militant action, in fact there were always many more either explicitly opposed or serenely passive in the face of state brutality. But what is astonishing about the reception of Balestrini’s novel is the extent to which it was judged primarily on its non-literary dimension – i.e., in its positioning over the movement and move into armed struggle which constitute its raw materials. Its status as a literary object recedes in the face of its possible use as propaganda for either side; perversely, it is as literature rather than as document of the struggle that the novel is most important. For all that it may or may not serve as justification or provocation, The Unseen’s central questions are really those of survival and time: how human beings and human relationships survive or splinter in political struggle, how the puzzle of political history and individual human time fits together.

Balestrini’s background is in the literary avant-garde, which is to say that his writing is always conscious of the form in which it is cast. The Unseen is written in unpunctuated paragraphs interspersed with different voices, differing levels of narrative intervention, reading at times as a stream-of-consciousness recollection, stitched together across jumps in time. This is not literary pretension, but technique serving its object: in other words, it is the literary form taken to best embody the narrative – sensitive to the individual’s relation to history and politics, rendering its questions always in terms of individual suffering, immediate relationships rather than political abstractions. Its technique is then in service of the ethical-political axis that drives its story, in the achievements and suffering of its nameless narrator; this shift of the ethical axis away from the ragged contemporary consensus on the ‘responsibility’ of Autonomia for the repression undertaken by the Italian state and instead toward the individual political subject (replete with intense political bonds of friendship, love and solidarity) is perhaps what most outraged its early critics.

The story is a simple one: the unnamed narrator’s trajectory from working-class high-school rebellions, through squatted social centres, autonomist organising, the rancorous emergence of political violence and the experience of state repression and imprisonment. It bears the dedication ‘for Sergio’, the working-class Milanese autonomist whose conversations with Balestrini formed the prima materia for the novel. This fact, combined with the immediate style of the novel, makes it hard not to read it as a testimony. That is intentional, much of the novel’s power lies in it, but it remains a novel, not a transcript, and the question of its fidelity to specific historical events is less important than the story it draws out for the sympathetic reader. The narrative cuts between the history of the small affinity group (‘…that’s what we called it affinity group precisely because we were all in affinity about our way of living…’, p.104) and the narrator’s experience as a political prisoner, in prison revolts and their bloody suppression.

There are moments where any reader involved in extraparliamentary politics today will recognise eerie similarities with contemporary struggles, both in the attitude to police, and the ways in which differing political persuasions reassert themselves during struggle. For instance, during an occupation, members of a new Leninist political party arrive to bestow their sage advice:

they turned up with their party newspaper sticking out the pockets of their grey lodens they came up to Cotogno and me their leader got straight to the point what you need to do right away is call a mass meeting to discuss what’s to be done this spontaneous movement has to have political leadership first of all we’ll have a closed meeting between us and the occupation leaders to decide on the programme we’ll get the mass meeting to approve and so on finally they left none too happy but their leader threatened us all mass struggles are doomed if there’s no one to lead them you’ve got no political line and you’re dragging the masses to defeat and blablabla and blablabla

The settling of scores with caricature Leninists aside, Balestrini’s novel reserves considerable ire for those on the hard left who collaborated with the Italian state, especially the communist parties and those party to the ‘historic compromise’, especially those who become gleeful persecutors of autonomists through roles in the courts. The anger at the PCI is palpable. But there is a more interesting point raised by this quotation, which is that it is one of the few moments in the novel where ‘politics’ as a recognisable field of discourse and activity – with ideologies, with parties, with bureaucrats – obtrude into the novel. This is not to cede that the novel is uninterested in politics – the entire novel is about one relationship to the political, which is everything existing – but that it breathes a total dissatisfaction with formal politics, viewing it as structurally corrupt and corrupting.

But this negating relationship to extant political institutions is not a total explanation for the submersion of political discourse in the novel. Early in the narrative, the protagonist reflects on a police raid on his family home resulting in the confiscation of his collection of literature and ephemera from the movement: for him this is not an indissoluble loss, because his political involvement has been located in the rage at his family’s grinding work life, the narrowness of subjugation it produces, in short the root of his involvement is not discursive. Balestrini’s choice of a largely uneducated working-class narrator is salutary: even other prisoners are surprised that he can’t read languages other than Italian, because they expect political prisoners to be teachers or professors. It is a reminder that the autonomist movement wasn’t a mass movement of Toni Negris or even Nanni Balestrinis, and arose in direct contest with material conditions. In other words, the political theory of autonomist writers is at best half the story – the struggle itself was instantiated in the attempt to live otherwise, in the practice of political struggle itself, and it is here that Balestrini’s eye is focused.

Reading this novel, it’s sometimes easy to forget that all of this is well within living memory. Any informed reader knows how the novel must turn out: the Italian state propounds a causal link between Autonomia and the armed struggle, interns, tortures and violently represses its activists. The novel must end in prison. As Balestrini knows this, he ejects the trappings of suspense, and instead intercuts the struggle within the prison, and its eventual defeat, with the prior struggle prior to imprisonment. Yet this is not a concession to the logic of the state: that the movement necessarily gives rise to clandestine armed insurgency, that it then necessitates imprisonment, instead we have the angel of history surveying the wreckage behind him, able to discern only in retrospect the bad decisions, the flaws, the mis-steps that spin wildly out of control. Solidarity is the ethical criterion of The Unseen, again and again it is counterposed to the bafflement of the police and judiciary, and it is the choice to keep silence in solidarity (and thus refuse to incriminate others by confirming the report of a pentito, and exculpate himself) that lands our narrator in prison. It is also the slow unravelling of solidarity by the grinding harshness of the prison regime that leads to the novel’s bleak conclusion.

The unravelling of solidarity and the grim destinies of the various members of the affinity group after solidarity evaporates constitute, to my mind, the novel’s substantive political intervention. Here, again, is why it outraged its critics: it leapfrogged the pointless afflatus of Italian parliamentary politics and the critics’ circle to deliver a message about survival to its readers. Survival, or the failure to survive, becomes the key question: how to survive in a way worth surviving? There are three key episodes here: one is the set-piece confrontation between the women and the men in the social centre, which leads to the women withdrawing from the project, the second is the argument that arises over the choice of some few members to enter the clandestine armed struggle, the third the emergence of heroin within the culture. All three are salient, and uncomfortably easily recognised as problems we still encounter. It would be too complex to explore each one in turn, but it’s worth quoting one of the women’s interventions in a meeting called to address problems in the occupied centre:

Valeriana starts speaking (…) we’ve had separate meetings we women on our own have talked about things among ourselves that’s how it started without being planned then it became something more serious it became a need to bring out everything we had inside us how we’ve lived in our relationships with you here in the collective and to make comparisons with the relationships we’ve had before well we’ve discovered that there’s no difference being comrades should mean being different from normality being better more advanced culturally and most of all in terms of human relationships but you’re not a single millimetre more advanced than other men in the relationships you have with women

This is not a complaint that should be news to much of the left, but all too often it is: that in the struggle we reproduce precisely those dynamics of power we seek to oppose. Balestrini’s narrator, despite doing the standard bristling that accompanies such complaints, realises in retrospect that ‘it was about a much bigger affair as we understood it later it was about a trauma a big trauma a big rupture maybe bigger than all the other things we were doing and that changed us all later’ – this is daring. Instead of locating simply in state repression the seeds of the movement’s collapse, the protagonist points to the flaws in the movement that burst open under the force of that repression.

How to survive in a way that’s worth surviving? The novel refuses to greet the assertion that the only possible conclusion of Autonomia was the armed struggle: in prison, the narrator finds himself not quite able to understand the younger prisoners, interned after the collapse of the movement into violent clandestine insurrection. This split is dramatised in a meeting where arguments go back and forth over the clandestine struggle, its abandonment of mass consciousness, wherein Scilla, always inclined to violence, points a revolver at the head of one of his comrades in disagreement. Something breaks. The emergence of political violence as vanguardism, as an attempt to direct mass consciousness through a series of bloody signposts, the ‘leap into clandestinity … to abandon a movement of thousands of people in struggle for a war waged by twenty or thirty’ causes the affinity group to split. Those remaining attempt to set up a pirate radio station, but find something has gone, that they are working more and more furiously to cover over a gaping wound.

Escape is the dream of many in the prison.Towards the end of the novel we hear of the eventual fates of many in the group. One ravaged by heroin addiction and in debt, one dealing it, one dead at the hands of carabinieri, one driven mad by prison and eventually a suicide. China, the narrators lover, vanishes. The last time she visits him in prison, the intercom is broken, and the two cannot hear each other. He notices her dress, she is, for the first time, wearing neat earrings and a wristwatch, who never before wore a wristwatch. How to survive? In this case by subsuming oneself again into capitalist society, extinguishing all dissent, bound again to the regulatory time of the working day. She is never heard from again. The conclusion of the novel is seemingly bleak: a burning brand held out of the bars of a prison, but censured by its isolation in the countryside, no one to witness the silent protest, all the bonds of solidarity unravelled and gone. It is a bleak conclusion, with a plane passing overhead, unable to see – or if it can see, unable to interpret – the last, feeble protest going on inside the prison below.

But it is not all. We have the novel. In his diaries from his time in prison, published at the same time as The Unseen, Antonio Negri cites Kundera’s fear that ‘our prison records will be the only things left of us.’ They are not. What is hopeful is not the conclusion of Balestrini’s novel, but the existence of the novel itself. Its protagonists have not been reduced simply to their records, but come to us in a living and pungent voice. It is unstintingly real, and poses devastating questions, questions which are ever more important to answer today: how to survive in a way that’s worth surviving? It is worth reading Negri’s Diary of an Escape in counterpoint with Balestrini’s novel. Negri’s picture is more hopeful – perhaps, indeed, because Negri effected an escape, and had numerous advantages that Balestrini’s narrator did not – and worth thinking on:

I am a Marxist. And I remain a Marxist. I ask myself, recalling prison, what it was, if not my trust in revolution, that gave me the strength to carry on working. A re-reading of that strong theoretical hope, of the optimism of the intellect which is Marx. Marx beyond Marx. Spinoza and the logical certitude of possible revolution. And the calm passion of this vision, which went right through the experience of prison. Lessen the anger against injustice by means of the analysis of its structural causes, and through this build a higher level of hate against exploitation and domination. Many people tell me that, like Marx, I too am a corpse – but I don’t see humour in their eyes, only fear. The advantage of my hatred is that it is articulated on, and mediated by, hope. … Marxism: it is the only practice that turns theory into a weapon.
– Antonio Negri, Diary of an Escape (London: Polity Press, 2010), Fol. 79, pp.148-9

So this is Balestrini’s question, that he throws out to us, the ethics of survival, or, another question, how to live and continue living without extinguishing ourselves? Negri again: ‘There is a revolutionary society that lives within this shit of developed capitalism.’ How to sustain it? So, yes, we need to ask these hard questions, we need to start to figure out how to answer them – read Nanni Balestrini.

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Iron Horse

The recently deployed portable steel barricades now used by police in London are called by their inventors the ‘Iron Horse‘. Nothing particularly surprising about that: the lexis of armament-builders is replete with cod-medievalism, presumably in the pursuit of some chivalric burnish for the grim and impersonal tasks of securitisation, sterilisation and repression. It gives one some pause to consider what squalid private fantasies about nobility in the service of the state sustain those behind the barriers. Unwittingly, though, it recalls a different ‘Iron Horse’, the name Allen Ginsberg gave to a soldier-packed train he boarded in 1966, and to the poem he wrote about it. Ginsberg doubtless chose the name – much like the makers of the portable barrier – because of the halo of associations that surround it: the knightly warhorse, the unyielding martial dignity of ‘iron’, the historic speed and mobility of horse-mounted combatants. (The designers of ‘security solutions’ being, I assume, the humourless sort, the bleakly amusing ironies of naming a wall designed to prohibit free movement after a horse must have failed to present themselves as serious flaws.)

Ginsberg’s poem is shot through with the voices of soldiers, and tense with fear. Part of that fear comes from Ginsberg’s precarious position – Jew, queer, anti-war agitator, communist, poet, Buddhist – in short, everything unamerican and subversive, and the sense that to speak the obvious truth in the fever of war is to risk one’s life:

A consensus around card table beer –
       "It's my country
          better fight 'em over there than here,"
      afraid to say "No it's crazy
                   everybody's insane –
                          This country's Wrong
                   the universe, Illusion."

Though, outside the sense of personal risk, some of Ginsberg’s anxiety dwells in the obscure sense that events are propelling themselves ineluctably towards disaster, as unstoppable as the train, that he can intervene only belatedly and in futility, carried along in the wash toward continual war:

Too late, too late
         the Iron Horse hurrying to war,
                   too late for laments
                                too late for warning –
   I'm a stranger alone in my country again.

The sensation that Ginsberg describes – ‘The whole populace fed by News / few dissenting on this train, I the lone beard who don’t like Vietnam War’ – is one familiar to anyone who thinks against the paranoid pabulum oozing from just about every medium of contemporary analysis, which can be heard more-or-less replicated as political certainty in daily conversation. To sustain such dissent can be difficult and tiring. Worse, it can collapse into a hard-nosed illuminism, convinced of one’s own special insight and contemptuous of the capacity of the ‘ordinary’, unthinking person. Ginsberg does not do this, though it may account for the fantasies of quiet withdrawal from the world, which nourish the later parts of the poem and remain sweetly and obviously unattainable. Instead, Ginsberg uses the wavering and uncertain convictions of the soldiers surrounding him to underscore the both the pervasiveness of war propaganda and, oddly, the not-quite-total conviction with which it is repeated:

  Soldiers gathered round
              saying – "my country
  and they say I gotta fight,
            I have no choice,
                we're in it too deep to pull out,
                                   if we lose,
  there's no stopping the Chinese communists,
    We're fighting the communists, aren't we?
        Isn't that what it's about?"

The power in Ginsberg’s poem here is simply to record the hesitancy and catch in the questions asked, refusing to entirely abstract the political question away from the individual speakers (‘the bright talkative orphan farm boy / whose auto parts father wanted ‘im to grow up military’), and thus to overtly simple answers, all the while aware of the Iron Horse as pursuing an immovable trajectory, ‘too late’.


This seems far away from the steel barricades of the Metropolitan police: no lightning attends them as they race southwards, and they seem as stolid and immovable as the officers behind them. But we have been on a war footing recently, with the government casting around for suitable enemies, both foreign and domestic. (One question that underlies so much of Ginsberg’s work, for which he never quite finds an adequate answer, is what purpose the transition to a state of permanent war serves for the United States.) So much of this is theatre, but it is a theatre of justification: one which nebulously invokes temporary crises of security and public order to justify a series of permanent repressive measures. Such a logic – attempts at permanent restructuring under the guise of temporary belt-tightening – is hardly unfamiliar to anyone following the desperate machinations of the UK government since 2008.

Yes, Total Policing has arrived in the metropolis, and with it the sense that sundering the link between political conviction and effective action is at the heart of the strategy. In a veritable triumph for democracy, it is now permissible to hold any stripe of opinion within the private walls of one’s skull, but to act on that conviction is to act under the threat of discovering precisely how thin those walls are. Much, too, might be written on the appearance of steel walls, containment, police violence and judicial victimisation under the rubric of the ‘state of exception’ – equally, one might argue that, as the state has always had the monopoly on the use of violence, such situations are not deviations from the norm, but simply moments in which the disjunction between the formal operation of the law and the actual practical, political uses of violence becomes explicit. The usefulness of the ‘state of exception’ is not to describe this disjunction (which is permanent), but to note those moments at which the formal operation of law becomes suspended. We should not be overhasty in its use: exception no longer takes the dark form looming on the horizons of Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, but is now visible and now invisible, temporary, targeted, and above all, technological. I hope to return to this question of exception, law and technology in the coming weeks, because I am convinced that it is here, and in its latent question of personal agency that the most interesting diagnosis of our current situation lies:

There's nothing left for this country but death
               Their faces are so plain
               their thoughts so simple
                         their machinery so strong ––
               Their arms reach out 10,000 miles with lethal gas
                       Their metaphor so mixed with machinery
                           No one knows where flesh ends and
                                  the robot Polaris begins...

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To my friends: on #OccupyLSX

To my friends:

I left the campsite of #OccupyLSX a few days ago to go to Barcelona. I’ve found myself spending much of the time I’ve been away wondering: where are you?

Let’s try a thought experiment: in the capital city of your country, a popular protest movement springs up with the explicit aim of confronting the financial system, occupies and maintains an occupation of a prominent public space, captures the media conversation and enjoys widespread popular support. The only possible response is to go down and engage with it.

Yet, of the many astonishing things about #OccupyLSX, perhaps the most astonishing is the paucity of faces I recognise there. This has two sides: the positive side is that the majority of people at the camp are actually newly politicised, and have been driven to take action building on the profound intuition that something is wrong. Here’s the crap side: people who have been involved in extraparliamentary politics for a long time are largely not there, preferring to sneer from the sidelines that the politics of the camp are not sufficient to the ends we would like to see, or that they’re not militant enough, or they’re simply getting things dangerously wrong.

The form of this thought is ludicrous: it proposes that political views are conceived prior to political action, and remain static and immobile throughout it. Actually, the politics of the camp, and the people in it, are in flux – and if you want people to have politics you judge as adequate, whining that they don’t have them from the comfort of the sidelines is useless.

We know about social movements. Above all, we know their failings. We know that social movements can diminish into activist ghettos. We know they get disconnected from the realities of everyday life. We know that they get bound down in internal divisions. We also know that social movements, when they appear, do not bear the form we were expecting, or perhaps even that we were desiring. This last is an important point: the real conditions from which social movements spring will always be partly obscured to us, their form is dictated by the conditions in which they arise, and partly determined by them. It is up to us to go to meet history when it is moving, rather than expecting it to come to us in a pleasing shape.

I am calling this a social movement because it is; I am saying that the protesters by St Paul’s are newly-politicised because they are. They are made up of people whom the ‘left’ in its traditional forms has failed, or never engaged: yes, including the unions, but including the activist left as well. Many of them – housewives or mothers, unemployed or underemployed, secretarial or temporary workers – are those bitten hardest by the changes in work in the past thirty years, without an easily comprehensible political language. If they do not talk about ‘class’ or ‘capitalism’, it is because those concepts vanished over the horizon of popular thought for the past thirty years, or because they came to mean static, historical ideas, perhaps relevant to the past, but no longer describing what we do today.

We are living in an extraordinarily hot political moment, in which people’s politics are changing rapidly – and in which systemic popular dissent is more visible than it has been for a long time. That it is systemic is most interesting: for all the reductive slogans about bankers and their bonuses, the political conversation that emerges in the camp is far more about systemic change than some peculiar bad bankers.

As I said, what brought people to the occupation was at base an intuition of something profoundly wrong. What develops out of that is still up for grabs, but it is clear that intuition is widely shared. Most conversations I’ve heard passing the camp have been broadly supportive, even when inflected with standard reservations about making a fuss and things being unable to change. But this negative mode of politics leaves a vacuum: intuition has to lead somewhere, and where it leads is yet to be determined. If we withdraw from the political conversation, then we end up conceding the conversation to a variety of right-wing dipshits, ‘libertarian’ capitalist, Zeitgeist conspiracy-theorists and those who think capitalism can be overcome by meditating and drinking your own urine.

I get that it’s frustrating. The slow work of politics – having essentially the same conversation over and over a thousand times – is not fun. It’s not like breaking through a police line, or marching, or chasing shamefaced politicians around Westminster with an angry mob. It is, however, the most important work we can do. This is a proposal for a kind of interventionism, but not the kind that operates by arriving in a cadre, or seeking to pervert process: it’s one that works from the ground up, by locating a popular movement and engaging it (that is, with the people, all of them, who make it up) with the humility to recognise that it might teach you a few things about how you organise, and about what you think, too. It is called participation.

We all bemoan the walls of the activist ghetto: the same faces, talking the same self-satisfied shit, even enacting the same ritual anger at the isolation and failure of engagement of activist culture. But on the other hand, it’s strange to walk on to a site where you don’t recognise anyone, and where all your previous experience, friendships and networks aren’t there to make life easy. #OLSX is – surprisingly, even to me – very much not the usual crowd. To find the walls of the ghetto crumbling and discovering that, actually, your activist social capital means little unless it translates into doing something – yes, that’s got to be a chastening experience.

Then this is my point: you need to engage this movement, and it won’t be comfortable doing so. I was down there almost continually, and one thing that’s striking is that its representation online bears little resemblance to what’s actually happening in reality. What’s happening is happening there, not on the computer screen. Needling, trolling, or criticising online is all well and good – I certainly like it – but it doesn’t really translate into anything beyond some enjoyable sound and fury.

Lastly, I share many of your critiques, frustrations and fears about the camp: about its slipshod process, about its lack of safe space and treatment of women, people of colour and queers, about the naïveté of trying to build a new politics uninflected by what currently surrounds us, about its hesitancy to engage fully against capitalism, about its softness to the church, about how it connects to wider labour struggles, about the transiency and direction of the camp, about its instinctive acceptance of many activist credos, about its ability to be sustained – but it is a mistake to believe that those are unalterable problems, or ones that can be solved by carping from the sidelines. Engagement means engagement: it doesn’t mean drifting through the camp listlessly, but actually talking, engaging, getting actively involved, it doesn’t mean turning up with your friends to sneer briefly and then fail to speak up, or living in an isolating bubble which dismisses it all as a flash in the pan. It means participating, as an equal. Any movement is what you make of it – I won’t be ceding the ground to conspiracy theorists, or the liberal centrists, or the nationalists. There is a real chance here, and to pass it up without any engagement is jawdropping.

You weren’t born with great politics. You didn’t emerge from the womb brandishing three volumes of Capital with a burning firebrand in the other. You, and I, came to a coherent politics after a lot of work, after a lot of thinking, a lot of conversation, and probably a lot of charity on others’ parts. Have the awareness and the optimism that such a transition should bring you: other people’s politics grow and change too. But if you aren’t there, if you choose to write them off, if you choose to remain in the comfort of purity without getting your hands dirty – well, then you’re working the first part of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and what’s worse, you know it.

See you on site.


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Three thoughts on #Occupy

At a time when a banner reading Katalipsi! (Occupied!) flies from the Greek Finance ministry, here are three thoughts on the proliferating calls to #Occupy!:

Wall Street

I’ve not been to Wall Street. I don’t have to. Though separated from New York by an ocean, half a planet and a different political culture (one in which it is significantly less scandalous to talk about the obvious and total failures of capitalism), I can browse through any number of digital echoes and recordings, each with varying degrees of fidelity and spin. What has been most striking about the media reports from Wall Street is that – if you stripped away the inconsequential affect and incidentals – they really could have been written by anyone with an internet connection.

This leads to the usual overhasty generalisations about the role of the internet and rapid distribution of callouts, data, plans, images, videos, plots, analysis, complaint, trolling and information that attends social movements. The obvious issue here is that these things don’t really transmit ideology, analysis or demand, they simply foreground the ease with which the method can be replicated. This method-as-meme is doubtless linked to the prominence of internet communication between activists and interested onlookers; its proliferation also speaks to a new interconnectedness felt by the disenfranchised, whether in New York, London, Barcelona or Athens. But as DSG point out in that link, the success or failure of a method is if it catches the zeitgeist, if it is passed between and above all replicated by a growing multiplicity of consumers.

Let’s lay this out clearly: the internet makes it possible for images, text and vehicles of ideas to be replicated instantaneously and without expending raw materials in the replication – i.e., if I were to give you a manifesto, a poster or a book, I do not need to give away my copy to do so. Any object is replicable without diminution of the original. Hence, I can propose #OccupyLondon, #OccupyLSX, #OccupyTheMoon, and those ideas might be taken up with greater or lesser intensity within the digital fluxus, depending on how quickly they strike the desires of others.

But what does it mean to propose #OccupyX? On some level, it’s clearly an incitement to organisation, i.e., to move from online assent to physical occupation. It also clearly draws a link between the Wall Street example and occupations elsewhere, the spirit of Tahrir being the most obvious example. But the difference between the digital callout and replication should be obvious: physical manifestation requires the use of finite physical resources, as well as numerous less quantifiable factors, such as the goodwill of the state, the tactics of the police, and the energy or organisation of activists. Those to one side, the #OccupyX! imperative demands a replication of particular features of its most prominent American example. These are the most identifiable:

  • A move in the target of occupation. Unlike in Tahrir or Barcelona, Wall Street has served to move the focus of occupation from nominally public spaces to targets intimately linked with international financial capitalism. While retaining the strategy of placing under contention the notion that streets and parks are public spaces – hence, let the public return to them, as they are all we have left – Wall Street adds the intuition that there are very obvious enemies.
  • A horizontal organising structure. The inheritance of the anarchist, anticapitalist and environmentalist movements, the horizontal organising structure is now taken as the de facto mode of organisation for popular social movements. The model of the daily general assembly as authorising body is also taken for granted.
  • A minimalist programme making no explicit political demands, preferring to lay emphasis on the function of the ‘new space’, the meetings and discussions that happen in it, and the physical fact of occupation as constituting a demand in itself.
  • A desire for popular generalisation of the occupation. This distinguishes it from encampments designed to bear witness or shame a space, such as the small line of tents in Parliament Square in London. Thus we see the increasing involvement of organised labour in the Wall Street demonstrations, and the gradual massing of people to the camp.

Minimalism & the 99%

There’s nothing perfect about these hallmarks. I’d obviously choose the side of the occupiers over any rightwing critique, or indeed the lunatic feathering of the chains displayed by the American left. That #OWS has captured the sympathies of many is no doubt due to the totally moribund state of the American left, and demonstrates just how tenuous and easily broken the trance of passivity and inaction is – at least, briefly. But it’s doubtless true that the lack of articulated political, anticapitalist critique or demand has served to build this into a movement where many feel welcome.

Why is this happening? What happens when the fact of economic disparity is so glaringly obvious that it impels action, and yet those impelled to act are emerging from a totalised system in which anticapitalist analysis is non-existent, in which alternative models are held to be either unreal or simply impossible to imagine? Either one’s reaction is to kiss and feather one’s chains, and laud them as the way things should be, or it is to ask the question who is responsible? The question can be answered in two ways, and it depends on whether you see the current situation as capitalism-gone-wrong or capitalism in its full and typical operation. If the former, you will seek for those who have perverted the otherwise perfectly equitable situation, if the latter you will usually answer along the lines that the action of the capitalist class is always to exploit the working class.

It is the former, perversely, I am interested in. These are the people who are responsible for the propagation of the ‘99%’ meme, who have picked it up and run with it. Claiming, in brief, that the super-wealthy 1% have accumulated a vastly disproportionate amount of wealth, and have done so by extorting, legally and less legally, the rest of society, it is a complaint that demands some kind of redress. It suggests personal culpability on the part of the 1%. That’s not something I’d seek to diminish – I don’t believe that the super-wealthy are any less conscious of the means by which they appropriate their wealth than the rest of us. But the lure of blaming inequalities on the agency of the 1% (i.e., proposing a critique centered purely around their moral culpability) leads to a convenient elision: that capitalism structures social relations. Capitalism does not have its headquarters on Wall Street. It is not an ogre that dwells behind the crenellations of the Bank of England. In other words, the question of work, of wage and the extraction of value from labour remains crucial.

But these are well-trod criticisms. What interests me is that the minimal programme of 99%ism – that it is so attractive and so immediate a rallying cry. No doubt some of this is to do with the liberating sensation that one doesn’t need a fully fledged theory of political economy to take part in action. It’s diffuse groups with similarly minimal programmes that have been peculiarly successful here, too – especially UKUncut. Like many, I share a disquiet that hesitancy to voice radical critiques of wage labour and capitalist culture (because we’re scared of spooking the horses) means that these minimal programmes will find themselves as acting, essentially, as parliamentary pressure groups, articulating basically cosmetic and reformist demands. The worst outcome of 99%ism could well be a response to one of its structuring logics – that there are some bad people in the 1%, that they have behaved badly, and that once they’re suitably chastised, we can all go home and return to normal.

That’s certainly a threat. There are other ways to branch out from 99%ism, to extend its logic more rigorously, to use it as a basis to insert other conversations – just as here, too, we might suggest that the actions of UKUncut don’t so much demand a return to the status quo ante but demonstrate that even that is no longer recoverable. From there, we might talk about the brief interlude of a postwar social democratic settlement, the incoming realities of resource scarcity, the way that demands from and action by workers won what little we have – and how, in a period of increased precarity and diminished militancy, it’s all vanishing from under our feet.

The unthought & the margins

Finally, briefly, a touch on two things. One is what you might call the ‘unthought’ of the Occupy! movement – that accretion of dogmas, reflexes and given truths that it inherited from the various activist movements that preceded it. Some of these are good things, doubtless (trying not to make meetings full of over-talkative windbags, trying to avoid co-option or recuperation of the movement, trying to ensure people are not stressed to their wits’ ends) others either lacking or simply quixotic consequences of subcultural creeds (prioritising meditation spaces over, say, a crèche) – but they emerge, to a greater or lesser extent, without much articulation of why they’re necessary, as reflexes. An example might be the general assembly, which pops up as the base unit for organisation – but something which can hinder smaller, autonomous action, can lead to a tyranny less of structurelessness than blandness, and a paralysis in which a move to the centre, to the less militant option, is always given priority. These are precisely the problems of the unthought – without clarity about what a general assembly is supposed to decide, supposed to be for, what remains within its purview – it becomes a repository for all of the contentious and irresolvable conflicts of opinion between those who would like a movement to speak with a single voice. No movement does that, of course.

The second thing: margins. The Occupy! movement is in many senses marginal: its recovery of public space as occupied rather than transitory, its critique from the margins of the city and economy, its insistence that it is the return of the marginalised, and the marginal status (student, unemployed, precarious worker) of many of its key actors. One of the key autocritiques that any political movement should generate is about marginality – about the way in which activists, especially, will lock themselves into an ultramarginalised and ultimately ignored subculture. But it is also true that margins replicate widely. We already see cracks and fractions emerging in the discourse of the movement – the tension between, say, anticapitalists and liberals, between advocates of direct action, or confrontation, and ultrapacifists, between communists and hippies. To paper them over is a recipe for disaster. But marginality also configures the protest’s role to the state – and I think here particularly of Wall Street, and of an essay by Félix Guattari, of which I am very fond, called ‘The Proliferation of Margins’ [.pdf], in which he writes:

Integrated world capitalism does not aim at a systematic and generalized repression of the workers, women, youth, minorities… The means of production on which it rests will indeed call for a flexibility in relationships of production and in social relations, and a minimal capacity to adapt to the new forms of sensibility and to the new types of human relationships which are “mutating” here and there (i.e. exploitation by advertising of the “discoveries” of the marginals, relative tolerance with regard to the zones of laissez-faire…) Under these conditions, a semi-tolerated, semi-encouraged, and co-opted protest could well be an intrinsic part of the system.

It is that last sentence which I think should be understood by those occupying, though it is not simply about physical space, but mental and intellectual orientation as well. Any space in which the state tolerates your presence inevitably doesn’t hurt it that much: we saw what happened when the occupation really did try to take on Wall Street proper. Indeed, you may become a token brandished by liberal democracy to prove its plural tolerance of all kinds of dissent – which ‘you wouldn’t get in Iran’ etc. In these moments, margins are essential. What are the margins you can push at that make the situation less simple to predict, that render it more complex? How do you make the conversations had in Zuccotti park transmit from the outskirts to elsewhere, to those people you work with or study with who wouldn’t have dreamed of coming down to the occupation? How do you avoid recuperation? How do you open up margins everywhere? I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, but I certainly have some ideas. I think we live in times in which more things are suddenly looking rickety and contingent than solid, and I think that’s exciting. I’d like to have that conversation, and I look forward to acting on it. I hope some of you will join me.

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This post started as a lengthy email to a friend who is currently on an expedition to the Arctic Circle, and asked for some notes on utopia. We have certain political differences, perhaps; more, though, I think the nature of the expedition itself is worth reflecting on, and gave me an opportunity to write out some of the thoughts about utopia that are currently preoccupying me, and which form the basis of a much larger, much longer project. It remains substantially as I sent it, with a few minor alterations.

You asked me to write to you about utopia, and this is the third time I’ve drafted this email, having twice ended up with something very bloated and useless. As you know, I wrote a long thesis on some of this, much of it dense to the point of impenetrability and quite often wrong. Nonetheless, an academic thesis is rather like an embarrassingly elaborate but useless toy: you get it out on social occasions to manically reaffirm its worth. Of course, utopia is an obsession for me as well, which makes it doubly hard to write about: it’s hard not to scope into wide digression, or even to know what’s really useful or telling. It’s also hard to worm one’s way out of the conventional narrative about utopias, the great cliché being that the twentieth century is in some sense the history of the failure of utopian schemas for society. That’s as true as it is untrue, but, most of all, a reductive and boring way to think about things; more interesting might be to ask what political imagination does, and is for, and why its narrowing is seen as an inevitability.

Anyway, this email is in three parts, the first about the historical phase of utopian writing in the west, the second about theorising utopia (not that the two are ever really distinct), the third about some specific political questions about this expedition you’re engaged in, about which I have some serious reservations. Though I don’t want to carry out some kind of intellectual apologia, parts of this might be rigorously theoretical or abstract, but my conviction is that utopia sets out many important questions and thinking through it with some discipline is necessary. I’ve tried to evacuate it of as much density as possible.


Firstly, it’s important that we look at the history of written utopias, because they implicitly set the tone for much modern thinking about possible or ideal states. It’s notoriously hard to define historical boundaries for utopian writing, because the boundaries become either too restrictive or so general as to include any kind of thinking about how to organise a state. For me, there’s particular phase of English utopianism that flourishes from More’s Utopia through Bacon to Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World. Certainly there’s a perceptible change after that, but the 18th to 20th centuries also include any number of politically and literarily significant utopias, just as the period before More certainly includes utopianism avant la lettre.

But early modern utopianism is certainly significant. More’s Utopia (1516) and Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) are the two most prominent (& to me most interesting) texts of the period, and I’ll go into a little about why, though by no means really doing more than scratching the surface. There is little in between them that merits much attention in England, save the wide and influential circulation and misreading of More’s book; after Bacon there’s much more.

Here’s Burton, in the satirical preface to Anatomy of Melancholy, talking about some 17th century utopians, and setting the tone for the ‘rational’ dismissal of utopia that follows for the next three hundred years:

“Utopian parity is a kind of government, to be wished for, rather than effected, Respub. Christianopolitana, Campanella’s city of the Sun, and that new Atlantis, witty fictions, but mere chimeras; and Plato’s community in many things is impious, absurd and ridiculous, it takes away all splendour and magnificence.”

Burton has been cursed with the crassest and most indelicate of readers, but there’s much in this tight quotation that repays thinking: it echoes the end of More’s book (wished for vs. effected) which in turn echoes Cicero, and brings to the fore questions about imagination, fiction, hope etc., which are at the heart of all airy controversies about politics, fiction and writing; it pauses on ‘wit’, which in tension with (or as sign of) reason is worth thinking about; it invokes the ‘chimera’, which is a lumpen agglomeration of disparate and ill-fitting parts, much like utopian writing, and is also *monstrous*; the charges laid at Plato’s feet tend also to recur in conservative analyses down the years. (Also, remember, it is a *satirical* preface.)

The chimerical quality of utopian writing is a bit of an intractable problem for anyone who wants to write about utopias: they cross genres, while also being in some sense a genre themselves; you can certainly see in them strains of travel writing, didactic moral writing, satire, manifestos, learned humanist games etc. Perhaps there are better ways at discerning linking features between utopias: one might be the irony of presentation, or the sprung tension between political suggestion and fictional experiment, or indeed the trope of the fantastic voyage and (usually) idiot traveller on strange shores. That latter matters: this writing flourishes right after the discovery of the New World, and in a period of rapidly changing scientific and philosophical orthodoxy, as well as new forms of economy (More and Bacon both being different examples of the new civility), political unrest and protracted war.

(I don’t want to meander too much, but two things: travel writing, especially Hakluyt’s Divers Voyages, is flourishing in this era; Ramusio also binds Diodorus Siculus’ proto-utopian writing alongside the voyages of Amerigo Vespucci in Navigationi et Viaggi; Holstun notes (in Rational Millennium) that expeditions either seeking More’s utopia as a real place or planning a colony along its lines, as if it were description or manifesto, were surprisingly common; by the time we reach Bacon, both the East india Company and Virginia Company are in operation, and thus we have the discourse of colonisation and Empire to contend with to a far greater extent in these later works.)

More’s Utopia tends to be discussed largely in terms of whether or not he *meant* it, and what that would mean: i.e., whether it’s a learned and ironised sigh about the impossibility of a better or perfectly ordered society, whether its careful ironies are a politically astute gambit to smuggle in outrageous ideas, or whether they’re profound misgivings about its practical possibility. The editors of the Cambridge text call it (and I’m inclined to agree) ‘in fact a rather melancholy book’, and an overly optimistic or naive reading of it misses that important factor. I don’t want to address the book’s extensive engagement with humanist virtues, or its positioning within a network of European humanist thought, or its publication afterlife and circulation, though these things are important; perhaps more important for us is that the book as it comes to us is divided in two parts. The second part is Hythlodaeus’ (a name that means ‘nonsense peddler’) account of his time in utopia, but the lengthy first part is a debate over whether it’s worth entering into politics and the contemporary political problem of theft. These do not seem, initially, particularly useful or apposite conversations to have one’s characters engage in before relating the story of utopia; they’re deadly serious but also by turns dull, prosaic, cynical and unsinspiring. However, the first part was written some time after the utopian narration in the second, after More’s return to England in October 1515. This is not to suggest that the experience of returning to England caused More to realise the impossibility of the utopian project, thus compelling him to readdress and highlight its ironies and incompatibilities with the world as it actually exists, as those practical truths would not have been lost on him at any time – but perhaps that the book is itself caught between political imagination and a sense of the world as somewhat bleak and even in decline.

It has been the habit of many to read in More’s (and to a certain extent Bacon’s) text either a nascent communism or the first leaden, nightmare steps of the bureaucratic state. There are historical reasons for this: More and Bacon both witnessing great shifts in economy and property with particular intimacy. What’s not clear with More is the extent to which they’re offered as solutions or predictions; what I think we *can* justly say, thinking about the tensions between the first and second sections of the book is that More’s utopia is offered as a contemporary intervention, indeed as a *reproof* to the clear political problems of his period via systematic imagination. Such may seem obvious, but what I think is particularly interesting about More’s utopia is that it seeks partly to redress issues of imbalance not by focusing on the moral standing of the individual but by thinking systematically about things that seem to be already-established givens within his own political culture. This will become important later.

On to Bacon’s New Atlantis, and note the span of a century or so between those two works. It is really Bacon who revives the utopia from More’s skeletal clutch, and rather repurposes it, jettisoning much of its humanist apparatus; it is also intimately connected with the programmes for scientific, philosophical and social reform that Bacon lays out in Instauratio Magna, Advancement of Learning etc. It reads more conventionally like a story to us, with what will become the familiar tropes of utopian adventure: foreign journey, distant shores, buffoonish traveller, perplexing customs, marvellously superior and harmonious society. Rawley, the text’s first editor, makes it plain he sees it as a fable advocating reform of society to establish a similar college of science and learning as the House of Salomana in the text, and it certainly seems obvious that at least some of its political intent is much more immediate than More’s. But that’s by no means a whole account of the story.

To me what’s most interesting about pairing these two texts what Bacon’s utopia actually says about More’s. To put it in Marxist terms, Bacon’s Bensalem is a utopia of the *forces of production*, which reveals More’s as being a utopia of the *relations of productions*. Book II of Utopia opens  with concentration on the complete reorganisation of the labour force, eliminating ‘vain and superfluous trades’, the consequence of which is to find that what we *need* for human existence is produced by far fewer hands than one supposes. Morean utopia is thus a utopia of *full employment*, and reflects a belief that goes as far back as Plato that if everyone is employed in useful, productive labour, we see an increase in free time and greatly reduced labour as a consequence of the social aggregate. Of course, in More this change is simply asserted rather than actually represented, but Hythlodaeus is at pains to assert that this is merely a consequence of everybody working rather than in new techniques of work. (In my favourite footnote, the Cambridge editors concede that More solves numerous problems ‘by the simple expedient of not mentioning them.’)

Bacon’s text, by contrast, reveals More’s as turning on an anthropological rather than technological axis, and seeks to turn the question of utopia away from the nature of the subject’s relationship to general economy and instead toward institutional organisation, scientific power and the relationship between knowledge and the state. Any serious study of Bacon’s text concludes that the real engine of Bacon’s perfect society is not the political structure, which for the most part reduplicates in perfectly virtuous form the political structure of contemporary monarchies, but the ‘House of Salomana’, the great scientific institution, which through ingenious application of science develops technology that allows the Bensalemites to perfectly exploit the immense natural resources of the earth; this is true to the point that economic exchange by money is no longer present in Baconian society.

I’d like to go on about the telling economic moments in each text, but don’t really have the space – there’s a particularly fascinating moment in New Atlantis where the newly arrived sailors are simply amazed that no one gets bribed, and try to pay their way into the new society; this is a moment of special poignancy for a Baconian utopia, given the bribery scandal that engulfed him in public office, and the open system of lack and indebtedness that constituted the state economy at the time. The perfect exploitation of natural resources, the unseen monarch existing for the ‘propagation of his subjects’, the perfect munificence transcending imperfect barter and acquisition – all these allow the Bensalemites to trade not in gold, but for ‘light’, that is, knowledge. There’s a lot here that I’m not going to explore fully, about the ways in which this presages the growing importance of instrumentalising scientific discovery for state purposes, or reducing labour, or indeed about the way in which the House of Salomana supplants the formal government of the state as its real animating force, but to my mind this relationship is the crux of Bacon’s utopia, and its most startling political intervention. I’d also point out that this is as much a melancholy text as More’s, coming as it does at a point where the scientific desiderata of Bacon’s reforming programme look unrealisable, at least in part because of the imperfect economic and political system in England at the time. Among the questions posed by the fictional premises of Bacon’s text are, among a number of ‘what ifs’ (e.g., what if lack weren’t the constitutive factor of our economics?), also the question of what and whom the state is for, what it is designed to achieve, and what it *could* look like. It is also (as Ernst Bloch argues is the chief function of utopia) a compensatory, consolatory work, though that doesn’t necessitate the conclusion that the intervention of hope is a form of intellectual defeat.

I think that’s all I need to say on historical English utopias, but I’m acutely aware there’s lots I haven’t mentioned. The development of utopianism over the course of the following century is interesting, especially in the context of religious/political reform and civil war: the most explicitly politically-realised utopian writer would probably be James Harrington (Oceana), but the proposals that came from the Hartlib circle (Plattes, Macaria) and the proliferation of full-employment or theo-political utopias are hugely important – in a sense closer to the development of utopianism on the continent by Campanella or Andreae. There’s a huge concentration in the latter two in the occult symbolism of the city reflecting the heavens, or emblematic dissemination of knowledge, reflecting a preoccupation about the ways in which the ordering of a city can order and perfect its inhabitants. I think that latter brings out something that allows us to distinguish another generic trait of utopia specifically, as opposed to its sometime literary analogues, such as Eden, or the Land of Cockaygne, or Arcadia, all of which propose a similar irenic, perfected space: crucially, all the others are either prelapsarian or simply magical and otherworldly – that is, their plenitude arrives by virtue that they operate according to other logics than the normal human world. Utopias, by contrast, are not lands where roasted partridges magically fly into one’s mouth, but in which the perfectible element of humanity has been perfected by the use of political and social means already at human disposal. Reordering, revolutionising or scientifically enhancing human culture may be at the furthest limits of human social imagination, but it does not require a total break with the possible, as those others do. That, in a nutshell, is the political-imaginative potential of utopian literature.

Before moving on from this overlengthy historical note, there are two final things to address: one is the afterlife of utopianism outside the historical period I specified; the second is the extent to which utopian writing has, or can, influence ‘actual politics’ and whether it was ever intended to. On the latter: I’ll take this up a little more in the next section, but I think this question is partly about what the ‘work of hope’ is, and towards what, exactly, our politics are oriented. As I noted, the lacerating ironies with which the better utopias have been quite consciously laced by their authors make it quite hard to determine their ‘serious’ political intent; they are also works of consolation after political failure, or the closing of the horizons of possibility. Nonetheless, they were also taken up as manifestos, or held to be descriptions of real places; Harrington’s Commonwealth of Oceana was very much a (surprisingly influential) systemic political intervention in Cromwell’s England, very thinly disguised as a fictional utopian adventure, and as a predictive analysis of some of the problems of states after revolutions, eerily prescient. Oceana presents the great literary danger of fully politically-oriented utopias, that they break down into merely paratactical descriptions of modes of social organisation, eliding the literary (hence sympathetic) value of the narrative which works to draw its reader into the act of political imagination; it also raises the questions of *when* we delimit the boundaries for utopian effectiveness. The afterlives of utopias are often more widely influential than their initial reception.

On that, there is also the question of what happens to utopianism in the Enlightenment, after what I’ve been exploring as its golden age: eventually, of course, one of its filiations is science fiction or fantasy, though I am dubious of any straight genealogy there, but in general the intellectual reception of utopia in the 18th century accords with Hume, Rousseau or Diderot, that ‘so perfect a government is not suited to men.’ There certainly were utopians writing and publishing (Island of Content, Burgh’s Account of the Cessares, Northmore’s Memoirs of Planetes, Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall etc) but the relatively free press in Britain meant that the ideas within them would be seen as best left to the domain of fiction, or the impossible. The case in France is a little different: Robert Darnton’s study of the forbidden literature in pre-revolutionary France shows that, rather than Rousseau’s Social Contract, which was long expected to have headed the samizdat list, the regime was most concerned about the wild spread of Mercier’s fantasy L’An 2440, a fantasy of a future Paris. In the politically repressive atmosphere of France, this form of utopian fantasy shifted from simply a melancholic sigh of wistful impossibility to become a roadmap and inspiration for revolution. (It’s notable that much of the utopian writing in England in this period was oddly conservative, essentially reaffiriming the stability of the post-Restoration settlement; only after the French revolution does utopian writing in England once again become politically daring.)



I’ve laid out what I see as some of the tensions that have characterised utopian writing in its early modern period, but it’s quite hard to look back at historical utopia after the 20th century and not also see some terrifying tendencies in embryo. There’s also a suspicion that dawns after reading a number of utopias that the people in them are really very thin, indistinguishable, unindividuated, possessing little in the way of passion or exception. (And you pause to think: not for nothing did Plato exclude poets from his ideal Republic.) To a certain extent it’s possible to answer this by saying that strains of utopianism allow the question of distinction between individual political subjects to fade out in favour of asking questions about the *city* as a political entity. Campanella, one of the most prominent continental utopians, asserted that ‘the world is a great animal, and we live within it as worms live within us’ – under that rubric, many utopians are asking questions about the animal rather than the worms.

But it’s insufficient as an answer, not least because we are rightly hesitant when notions of the individual fade entirely from view. Still, this is one of the reasons I think that an engagement with utopia – and the way utopia has been theorised in the 20th century, especially – is so crucial, because to cede the notion that collectivity or commonality will always be a byword for totalitarianism is to fall into the territory of the ‘individualist’ Ayn Rand-reading right. It is worth meeting these ideas head on: John Carey states the case implicitly in his selection of utopias edited for Faber, which includes many of those later pieces that display a fascination with public hygiene of eugenics as tools for building an ideal society, such as B.F. Skinner’s dilation on behavioural conditioning in Walden Two or Corbett’s New Amazonia, which excludes any who have the ‘slightest trace of disease’. This is not simply a contingent fact of utopianism within a particular period: Plato also denies medical treatment to the sickly or dissolute, and More’s book contains an extensive fantasy about genocide against the ‘filthy’ and belligerent ‘Venalians’, who are thin ciphers for the Swiss. Carey rarely edits a book without polemical intent, and he includes a section from Mein Kampf as the ‘culmination of the utopian tradition that starts with Plato.’ (The Republic being the most widely-read work of political theory in the Third Reich.)

One may certainly quibble with the heuristic by which Carey judges for inclusion within his selection, which is so broad as to be almost meaningless, but it’s certainly the case that fantasies of an ideal society have often sat side-by-side with sickly notions of racial, moral, or social purity; as Carey puts it, they share the desire ‘to a greater or lesser extent, to eliminate real people’. I think this is a substantial problem; it’s also the case that the flourishing of classical utopianism is coeval with the first blossomings of the bureaucratic state, that in many utopias perfectibility is achieved by the full and total functioning of an inhuman bureaucratic system that would give even Foucault nightmares. Carey’s argument, in essence, runs something like this: the utopian propensity necessarily erases the distinction between individuals as human subjects and constrains the freedom to act (especially, to act erroneously), subjugating populations to the control of a centrally planning intellect in service of a particular idea about how humans should live together and flourish. In service of that ideal (which may be as much theological, or racial, or about virtuous production, or efficiency) the state apparatus serves to exclude harmful or threatening elements; the violence with which it does this is visible to a greater or lesser extent, but the establishing force of the state is always violent, and that violence is always held in reserve for deployment at any point in which the order of the state is threatened. What is particularly pernicious about this is that violence against a particular category of people is seen as simply a necessity in establishing and maintaining the virtue and stability of utopian society. Utopia, hence concentration camps. Utopia, hence gulags.

As it stands, I can’t find anything much wrong with Carey’s critique, save that it attributes to a particular strand in western political imagination faults that I’d suggest lie far more deeply at the root of political thinking about the state and what it does, or what it’s for: after all, to construct his very broad history of utopia he has broadened the category as to be almost meaningless, and to include pretty much any imaginative exploration of what politics might look like. In fact, most anarchists (or most left-wing critics of the state) would recognise the implicit criticism of structural violence, either more or less submerged, as necessary in the sustenance of the imagined state. What emerges from Carey is an impetus to think about the relationship between violence and sovereignty, the monopoly on ‘just’ violence (a preoccupation of More’s time and ours being the notion of a ‘just’ war), and in what body, precisely, the power of violence is legitimately invested, and how it is extended or distributed among the body of the state. If there is a wider question here, it is to do with what we might call the post-Hobbesian consensus, the degree to which political theory after Hobbes has operated and positioned itself within his social anthropology – but that’s a question that I’ll suspend, because it needs greater, lengthier examination in a far longer project.

So what does this leave us to theorise utopia with? I don’t think we can take Carey seriously and claim to surgically remove particular strands within utopianism in order that it accords with the kind of place we’d most like to live, or how we suspect human beings should flourish if they were free of trauma, lack or violent interference. Partly, of course, because there are very few utopias lacking some kind of horrific brutalism (Fourier’s, for instance, sets the Jews to work on the farms), but partly because the critique is that the totalising act of political imagination tends towards totalitarianism, that the transition to and maintenance of utopia requires systemic violence, and that this is inescapable. So we have to ask some very serious questions about the political imagination, and the structures and structuring forces of social desire – one of the things helpful here is a kind of exegesis of the dominating concerns of utopian writers over time, and the way their preoccupation reflects their interaction with state power at the time, the nature of proposed social reform (i.e., against whom or what is violence directed?), and how it plays with the realm of the previously unthinkable. (Claeys contrasts the incendiary nature of utopia in France with their role in Britain as expanding the limits of the politically thinkable, concluding in a rather tendentious assertion that they paved the way for a welfare-oriented form of liberal democracy – a conclusion I disagree with, but the logic of which is worth exploring.)

To my mind, the central issue here is that the imaginative exercise of utopian writing has found itself grasping at the formal limits of its generic category: that is, it proposes and seeks to describe an ideal political entity recognisable to contemporaries, but removing the social ills apparent at its time of writing. Given that the fundamental unit of political thinking has been the sovereign state, our historical utopians have founding themselves thinking with, and through, that category; however, it is also increasingly apparent that the history of the twentieth century highlights the indissoluble problems of state centralisation and violence. Is there a mode of utopia outside of the propositional? Would a solution to centralised power be ‘utopia from below’?

Certainly the terrain of utopia has been a fertile one for Marxist thinking over the course of the twentieth century, despite Marx’s nominal opposition to what he called ‘utopian socialism’ (which has less to do with the kind of utopianism we’re discussing here, but may enter on my thinking in the next section.) The standard touchstone for Marxist utopianism is, of course, Ernst Bloch, who is sometimes a tremendously difficult thinker to understand – though I’d argue that this is because Bloch’s attempts to think utopia are attempts to grapple with these very issues, and to rethink it in light of contemporary history as well as a complex of ideas to do with belatedness, hope and redemption. But there are numerous other engagements with the topic, some less obvious than others. The two that I find most important are Adorno and Jameson, and it is no coincidence that they are both critics who are meticulously conscious of the political dimensions of literature or art without making them merely manifestos or diagnoses of a historical condition. Before turning explicitly to those thinkers, it’s also worth looking at Marcuse’s 1967 lecture ‘The End of Utopia’.

Marcuse’s lecture is, like many documents from that time, a bit depressing to look back on. It reflects the optimism and fervour of its period in arguing that instead of consigning ‘utopia’ as a sneering word for the impossible, we can talk of an ‘end’ to utopia because we have to hand, finally, both the technical and intellectual resources necessary for its realisation – and all that stands in the way of realisation is the current organisation of the forces of production. If the optimism of that prognosis seems extravagant, it is worth thinking about the utopian *criterion of negation* running through the lecture. Marcuse concludes:

“Marxism must risk defining freedom in such a way that people become conscious of and recognize it as something that is nowhere already in existence. And precisely because the so-called utopian possibilities are not at all utopian but rather the determinate socio-historical negation of what exists, a very real and very pragmatic opposition is required of us if we are to make ourselves and others conscious of these possibilities and the forces that hinder and deny them.”

If we are less likely now to think that we can talk of an end to utopia (by its realisation) as being within our sights, then we might also start to think about what the ‘ends’ (that is, the aims and effects) of utopia might be in our present time. (Marcuse: ‘an opposition is required that is free of all illusion but also of all defeatism…’) This negating mode is the form of utopia important to Jameson and Adorno, and is to my mind the necessary first step in dealing with the problems of the propositional model.

I should point out that negative utopia isn’t dystopianism (about which I have said little here, but is interesting in its own right, and for different reasons) nor is it strictly about conceiving a propositional model that escapes the conditions in which it is written, or that collapses under its own totalising force. It’s risky to summarise thinkers like Adorno or Jameson, but an almost adequate one might read: for Adorno, art is negative utopia in its ability to expose the suffering of the present and (importantly) not to offer it a *false* optimism in the possibility of patching up the already-broken present; for Jameson (whose concentration, in Archeologies of the Future, is often on science fiction) the political dimension of utopianism lies in the attempt to break with present conditions, a break which is both bound to fail but also to draw our attention to the limitations of the present, in our inability to imagine a future.

Klee, Angelus Novus

This may seem far from Marxism or communism, but to my mind the way in which these ideas preoccupy Marxist thinkers for much of the twentieth century is because communism is posed as a negating movement in relation to all existing institutions, but also one that refuses the propositional mode of the future state – not least because the question of ‘the state’ and its future existence is never clearly settled for Marx. For him, the formal category of historical continuity is not the state, or the nation, but the proletariat itself, hence the famous statement in The German Ideology that:

“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”

That final sentence is crucial to understanding the meaning here, and it also allows us to ask wider questions raised by utopia, the political imagination and the question of the future. It is necessary for us to read Benjamin’s famous image of the angel of history in light of that sentence, I believe – indeed, all of the Theses on the Philosophy of History – but perhaps one of the more telling, on the matter of utopia, is the realisation emerging in the twelfth thesis, that ‘…not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge.’ The short paragraph is a critique of the pacifying role of social democracy in Germany, asserting that the greatest strength of the working class, and what moves it to revolutionary fervour, is ‘the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.’ You may or may not believe that assertion, but its point is that the meliorist projection of a slightly improved future operating in the conditions and structures of the present is sold to the working class to preserve those very structures – and maintained by the precarious sense that, if it were to vanish, things could only get worse for your children.

The argument for negative utopia is that the totality of its disjuncture from the present refocuses the contingent, limited and unjust nature of existing institutions, without projecting a sticky-sweet sense that everything will be OK; indeed it should place greater pressure on the present. Now, though this is by no means a complete theorising of utopia, I want to move on, but will note a brief desideratum for a theoretical engagement with negative utopia. Obviously, the most prominent question is whether the propositional mode is entirely lost to us, or what might emerge from a serious engagement with negative utopia. For me, there is an obvious question about the relationships between utopia, history and time which underpins a great deal of Marxist and contemporary critical thought: its germ is in Adorno’s famous passage about the contemplation of all things from the perspective of redemption at the end of Minima Moralia, also Benjamin’s Theses, and found in the various thinkers indebted to them, especially Agamben and, perhaps surprisingly, in Foucault. Some of it might be touched upon in Bloch’s invocation on Brecht to explain utopia: ‘Something is Missing.’ I hate to seem deliberately tantalising, but the ramifications of that passage will have to be left to another, longer piece of writing.


The reason I’ve written to you at length is not because I think your current expedition is terribly important, but because the question of the political imagination is at the centre of practical political questions about organising. In its crassest form the dilemma of political imagination is this: ‘oh well, it’s not like you have any solid ideas about anything better!’ or, if one presents any concrete idea, then accusations of hidebound dogmatising and ignorance of changing historical conditions proliferate. Justly so. It’s difficult to escape rattling forth between those two exchanges; we might plot one way of doing so partly by rereading Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire (‘…here the content goes beyond the phrase’ etc.) but obviously that’s not going to be enough. One of the less historically hardy of Marxist dogmas has been that the immanence of the communist future in the present proletariat will work as the guarantor of the post-revolutionary communist transition. Whether or not one believes in the inevitability of communism, what we can be sure of is that the options of Leninism or Stalinism, in short the establishment of a kind of communism allied to the bureaucratic state, leads to a world of nightmares. (In view of the contingent and rickety nature of human economic and political history, however, it should be clear that the real starry-eyed dreamers are those who believe present conditions will continue forever, and that change is impossible.) The reason I am spending time on this is that it is my suspicion that the orientation of negative utopianism offers some potential for engaging with this impasse; that the very negativity of ou-topos, i.e., not existing, not even possibly existing, forces a re-engagement with the political structures of the present.

But it strikes me this expedition is, in fact, not very utopian in its conception, or that if it is so, it is so only in the weakly propositional sense that reflects any number of dogmas about what a political structure or a state is, or could be. It is perhaps typical of a world in which our political horizons have narrowed so precipitously that the central question that animates so many of the respondents on the website of the project are about ‘starting over again’ and indeed that so many of the initial ‘citizens’ are tourism managers, CEOs, or celebrities. But the political question of creation of a state *ex nihilo* is a naive one, since we know the state as a historical political phenomenon did not come to exist this way, and the question for us is surely more about what the forces and institutions are that prevent *change* to the state as it exists, what interests they seek to entrench and priorities. I am, of course, notoriously grouchy about these projects, but does this not reflect the worst instincts of political philosophers, which is to privilege the notion of political structures as ideal experiments bearing little or no relation to their material reality? Less obscurely, my point is partly that there are obvious political considerations to this project (the ‘cultural olympiad’ as funding source, its brand-conscious presentation, the demography of the team) that are hopefully pressing on your mind – but perhaps more forcefully, the very conditioning of the discussion both by those forces and the propositional model I described above suggests you’re likely to run into some problems. Anyway, I hope these things are on your mind.

Rather than fulminate at the project, though, I thought it might be more useful to reflect on the contemporary anarchist response to the Marxian impasse I set out above. This is, I think, important. Briefly, it would be possible to respond to your expedition simply by saying that the apparatus already set up around it serves to condition its reception, especially the ‘become a citizen’ stuff online. A truly radical rethinking of sovereignty, power, people must, to my mind, jettison all beliefs about the necessity of particular trappings of political systems and seek instead their *function*: i.e., where they came from, what they’re used for. But this is as true for thinking about the doctrines of Lenin or failures of Marx to engage the question of the future and what he calls ‘prehistory.’ Brecht/Bloch again: ‘Something is Missing.’ In part, I suspect this is a question about the extension in time of political activity and antagonistic relationships between the working class and power, in whatever form; as has been the case throughout this piece, the question of *time* jangles about us continually. But I do not believe it is possible to answer that question while believing oneself to be thinking in an unconditioned space – this is why the number of questions on the Nowhereisland website about ‘starting over’ or ‘beginning again’ seem to me so dangerous, precisely because it is not possible to think political culture ex nihilo.

To my mind, the question of utopia (especially in its guise as negative utopia) weighs very heavily on the political decision-making of the far left, and especially the solution of ‘prefigurative politics’, that model of political practice that influences much of the anarchist and autonomist current in the present day. Graeber taxonomises anarchism as an ‘ethics of revolutionary practice’, and while I like this definition, I do think it has some limitations and problems – above all because holding it up as a solution to the impasse allows us to elide some important political questions, indeed allows many self-styled ‘radicals’ to fall back on solutions that are mere stopgaps or simply intensified forms of the logic of liberalism or reformism. The real question is ‘what does a prefigurative politics prefigure?’ and its appendant issues – I just wanted to pose that question here, especially as it is one I will be writing some explorations of in the next few weeks. Still, it seems to me that prefiguration (even with all its attendant difficulties in execution and, especially, imperfections) is the consequent *next step* from the impulse of negative utopia, and possibly the only one that doesn’t fall into the various traps I’ve outlined here. Is this a return to an idea of ‘utopia from below’? Maybe. I still think it’s too pat, too easy a phrase; tends too much to the model of retreat from confrontation with capital, the desire to organise only in its margins, to live off its cracks and in its lacunae. But what I hope this lengthy note has helped lay out is that the question of utopia is not confined to ‘artists’, nor is it simply a note of consolatory hope, idle and useless in its way, but is for us now at the centre of questions about how we organise, and what we organise for.

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