Occupy Wall Street from a deleuze-guattari perspective

Although I will be posting further installments of my series on “Nomad Citizenship revisited” devoted to developing a nomadology of institutions, I was asked to reflect on the relevance of Deleuze & Guattari’s political philosophy to the Occupy movement – and will share those reflections here in a series of three posts (including this one), on war machines, ahistorical becomings, and the minor.

Given that their first collaborative work, Anti-Oedipus, emerged at least partly as a reflection on the unanticipated political events of May 1968, it would be very surprising indeed if Deleuze and Guattari’s perspective turned out not to be relevant to the equally unforeseen resonance of the Occupy Wall Street movement throughout the United States (and indeed around the world) some forty years later. And it is the unforeseen quality of both these political movements that leads into the first two of the three topics under consideration in what follows (war machines is this post; ahistorical becomings in the next one).

War Machines

Although the term itself is in many ways misleading, the concept of the war machine is central to Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of politics and society, and especially to their conception of micro-politics, which is one of their most important contributions to political theory. While it is true that war machines do in certain specific circumstances make war, their essential characteristics are that they operate by means of a very particular kind of social cohesion, and that they produce change: in this respect, they would be better known as ‘mutation machines’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 229) or, as Paul Patton (2000) has suggested, ‘metamorphosis machines.’ In order to evoke the kind of social relations characteristic of mutation machines, we can draw on Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction between pack and herd animals. Herd animals form an undifferentiated mass, and they all follow a single leader; this for Deleuze and Guattari is the epitome of the State form of social relations. Pack animals such as wolves interact very differently: for wolves on the hunt, there is a significant degree of role specialization, and the pack operates via the collective coordination of members’ activities rather than via obedience to a single leader. (While it is true that the dominant alpha-male and alpha-female of a wolf pack unilaterally determine the distribution of food after the hunt – as well as the distribution of mating opportunities, for that matter – they do not serve as leaders of the hunt itself, which operates instead via spontaneous or horizontal coordination.) The kinds of change produced by mutation machines, meanwhile, vary widely. Deleuze and Guattari even go so far as to say that the war machine ‘exists only in its own metamorphoses; it exists in an industrial innovation as well as in a technological invention, in a commercial circuit as well as in a religious creation’ or ‘in specific assemblages such as building bridges or cathedrals or rendering judgments or making music or instituting a science, a technology’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 366). Finally, and perhaps most important, mutation machines operate via contagion, enthusiasm, esprit de corps, and solidarity (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 241–9, 267–9, 278, 366–7, 384, 390–93) rather than strict obligation or duty.

Certainly much of what happened during the events of May 1968 in France can be accounted for only in terms of enthusiasm and contagion rather than duty: a small student protest against corporate sponsorship of war gradually spread to become a general strike against the dissatisfactions of French society as a whole. The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 (OWS), in a similar way, spread rapidly to cities and campuses around the country, and eventually to groups and places around the world. It operated by contagion rather than by obedience to a single leader or even a single platform or program. OWS also quickly developed both a remarkable degree of role specialization and very effective horizontal modes of cooperation and coordination. And although it was initially conceived and organized by an identifiable group of activists (as was the initial French student protest), it very quickly grew beyond the bounds of anything they had imagined, and certainly grew far beyond anything they could control. Yet the fact that OWS can be said to have taken the form of a mutation machine does not make it a panacea: the contemporaneous right-wing Tea Party movement operated according to quite similar dynamics – although it did benefit from funding by the likes of the Koch brothers and from media hype provided by the likes of Fox cable news. As Deleuze and Guattari point out, the Nazis operated as an autonomous war machine before they took power and integrated that machine into the apparatus of state rule. Ultimately, then, the form of organization or of the social dynamics of a given group says relatively little about the content of their positions or activities. The value of the concept of the war machine is rather that it directs our attention to the manner in which these social groups or movements actually operate. And in OWS and the Tea Party movements, we have chosen rather extreme examples: it may be that elections in so-called liberal or representative democracies are always won or lost on the basis of which party can mobilize more numerous and more energetic war machines operating on its behalf – from student volunteers going door-to-door, to volunteer housewives stuffing envelopes, to donors and campaign operatives themselves. Much like the stock market, electoral politics depends far more than is usually recognized on the kind of enthusiasm and contagion that are key elements of the war machine.

Since war machines operate on the Right as well as the Left, and everywhere in between, the fact that OWS took that form, or started out that way, cannot be considered decisive in evaluating its impact. But the same was true of the events of May 1968 for Deleuze and Guattari: within the span of a few months, the French movement had been re-absorbed into macro-politics as usual, with President de Gaulle receiving broad-based and strong support in the ensuing elections. But that doesn’t mean nothing changed on the level of micro-politics. Deleuze and Guattari describe deep-seated effects on countless individuals, for one thing – in a portrait that might just as well suit a generation of young Americans who would soon participate in OWS:

The children of May ‘68, you can run into them all over the place, even if they are not aware who they are, and each country produces them in its own way. Their situation is not great. These are not young executives. They are strangely indifferent, and for that very reason they are in the right frame of mind. They have stopped being demanding or narcissistic, but they know perfectly well that there is nothing today that corresponds to their subjectivity, to their potential of energy. (Deleuze 2006: 235)

And for another thing, the kind of movement that May 1968 was gets registered in the concepts (such as the war machine, micro-politics, etc.) that Deleuze and Guattari (and others) created in order to better understand it and hopefully relay its potential to future generations. Finally, even when a social movement produces no apparent immediate results – as was the case with May 1968, and appears to be the case with OWS as well – it may have produced what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘incorporeal transformations’ whose real or corporeal effects only become apparent at some later time. Thus a judge’s sentence doesn’t in and of itself physically kill a condemned person on the spot: it produces an incorporeal transformation, changing that person’s social and legal status from accused to condemned, which only later, barring unforeseen mitigating circumstances or disruptions, leads to corporeal death. But history is rarely (if ever) as clear-cut as a judicial proceeding: incorporeal transformations may occur without our even being aware of them at the time, such that it is only later that we ask ‘What happened?’ – what must have happened x months or y years ago, to lead up to the unforeseen changes we are witnessing today? In a famous 1984 magazine article (later re-published as an essay in Two Regimes of Madness (2006)), Deleuze and Guattari even went so far as to claim that ‘May 68 did not take place’ (‘Mai ‘68 n’a pas eu lieu’); they characterize it instead as a ‘visionary phenomenon’ and a ‘pure event’ whose realization depends on society’s ability to develop ‘collective agencies of enunciation’ to institutionalize the changes foreseen by the event: ‘French society has shown a radical incapacity to create a subjective redeployment on the collective level, which is what ‘68 demands’ (Deleuze 2006: 234). But the fact that no such agencies were found in the two decades following May 1968 doesn’t mean that they couldn’t develop in the future. And in the same way, incorporeal transformations put into motion by OWS may yet bear fruit; there can be no question that the movement has at least already completely transformed the social meaning of an otherwise anodyne figure, ‘the 99%.’

Next up: “ahistorical becomings”


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