Occupy Wall Street, Part Three

This is part three of my reflections on the relevance of Deleuze & Guattari’s political philosophy to the Occupy movement: the first one was on war machines; the second one was on ahistorical becomings.  Part Two ended with the claim that Occupy Wall Street had both a long-term or systemic large-scale target (Wall Street) and an immediate small-scale goal (instantiating democracy). Satisfying this double requirement is one aspect of what I have called (in my book on Nomad Citizenship) the slow-motion general strike, which is discussed below. But it poses some problems for the politics of the war machine, as discussed above, which lead us to ‘the minor,’ the topic of Part Three (below): How do you make political action that is not obviously revolutionary into something contagious? How does the felt need for social change become urgent? In the 1960s United States, it was anti-war protest, and the prospect of dying in a war we didn’t believe in, that lent the counter-culture movement its sense of urgency; in 1960s France, however, there was no such focal point, and yet the French student movement proved far more contagious than its American counter-part, and ended up mobilizing a far greater proportion of the French people than were mobilized by the American counter-culture and anti-war movements combined. The Occupy movement certainly became contagious, but despite the name ‘Occupy,’ it never had concrete long-term ambitions: what will become of ‘Occupy 2.0’ is a pressing question that so far remains unanswered. One of the unfortunate difficulties of the war machine and non-linear history is that they are so unpredictable – practically by definition. It is just as impossible to produce enthusiasm or solidarity at will as it is to predict the timing or extent of a bifurcation point in advance. But it was certainly no accident that ‘ground zero’ for the Occupy movement was none other than Wall Street.

The Minor

And it may be just as revealing that the single most enduring, significant and vigorous off-shoot of the Occupy movement has been the (inaptly named) ‘Occupy Student Debt’ movement. To help explain why this might be so, we can turn to Deleuze and Guattari’s adaptation of Marx’s analysis of capital, which I call their ‘minor marxism.’ The key difference between most ‘major’ or dialectical Marxism and this minor or structural marxism is that while the former focuses on the results of the dialectical process of capital accumulation, the latter focuses on the structural preconditions for capital accumulation – also known as ‘primitive accumulation.’ The watchword of major Marxism follows from the dialectical precept of the negation of the negation: expropriate the expropriators; confront the power of accumulated capital head-on, and wrest it from its illegitimate private owners by force. The approach of a minor marxism is different: address the structural preconditions for capital accumulation rather than the power of accumulated capital itself; disrupt and reverse the process of primitive accumulation. This is the basis of the strategy I call the slow-motion general strike. It is a general strike in that it is not directed against a single industry, but against capitalist industry as a whole; and indeed, following the example set in France in May 1968, it could be considered to be a strike against many or all facets of social life, not just industry – and in particular a strike against a nominally democratic political system that, then as now, has clearly not served the interests of the majority (the 99%). But the slow-motion general strike is also distinctive because, unlike the traditional or major general strike, it is not punctual and not confrontational: it unfolds gradually over the long haul rather than provoking (or hoping for) immediate wholesale changes in social life; and rather than confronting the power of accumulated capital, it seeks to undermine that power by subtracting greater and greater areas of social and economic activity from capitalist markets through the development of alternative economies and social networks that provide alternative means of life outside the circuits of capital. As the work of Gibson-Graham has amply demonstrated, economic activity already actually takes many different forms, even ‘under’ or ‘within’ capitalism, and many of them are in fact non-capitalist, if not explicitly anti-capitalist. The political strategy of a minor marxism thus centers around people gradually extricating themselves from dependence on capitalist markets, goods, and means of life, by instead relying on and further developing alternative means of life – community-supported agriculture, open-source software, DIY (do-it-yourself), fair trade, the list goes on and on – until a tipping point or bifurcation point is reached where capitalist markets begin to starve and then eventually wither away. This is what it would mean to reverse the process of primitive accumulation from which capitalism first emerged and on which it continues to depend.

As Marx points out – although he waits until the concluding part of Capital, Volume One to do so – the process of ‘so-called primitive accumulation’ (called so by Adam Smith) is better understood as a combined process of accumulation and destitution. For capital investment to emerge, there must be a prior accumulation of wealth in liquid form (not land), available to be invested. But equally or even more important, there must be a population stripped of their traditional livelihood, who thus have no way of surviving other than by selling their labor-power for a wage. ‘So-called primitive accumulation,’ Marx insists, ‘is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production’ (1887: Ch. 26, Para. 3). Capitalism emerges on the basis of this fortuitous encounter between liquid wealth and destitute labor, which Deleuze and Guattari call the primary axiom of capital accumulation. Innumerable other axioms can be added and subtracted – consumer tastes, production technologies, state forms, and so on – but the axiom that converts wealth into investment capital and work into dependent wage labor remains at the heart of the capitalist mode of production. Major Marxism focuses on accumulation; minor marxism focuses on dependency. In the course of capitalism’s historical development, dependency has taken three basic forms. The first form of dependence to predominate was work: destitute workers were forced to sell their labor-power to survive. But this form was from the start inextricably linked to a second form, involving consumption: workers were obliged to buy means of subsistence from capitalists (rather than producing them independently). Availability of non-capitalist ways of procuring the means of life would aggravate capital’s ‘realization’ problem: capitalists can’t make a profit if the goods they produce are not bought back in sufficient quantities. As brute starvation (in some parts of the global economy) declines in importance as a way of enforcing dependency, marketing and advertizing intervene to make people psychologically dependent on the purchase of capitalist commodities. Even leisure time gets commodified, as people become increasingly unable or unwilling to entertain themselves and purchase mass-produced entertainment instead. Even worse than the subsumption of production, consumption and leisure time by capital, however, is the third form of dependency, which is debt. As Deleuze puts it in his prescient essay on ‘control society,’ ‘modern man is no longer a man confined, but a man in debt.’ This context renews and heightens the significance of the fact that the first known word for freedom is an economic rather than a political term: it meant freedom from debt peonage. Trading the unfreedoms of disciplinary confinement for the unfreedom to go into debt in neoliberal society of control is hardly a bargain: while capitalist production and consumption certainly subsumed huge portions of social life, the debt to capital weighs ‘like a nightmare’ on every decision in every minute of every day, 24/7/365: for those in debt, each and every moment of their entire life must enter a calculus of whether it reduces, merely defers, or actually increases their debt burden.

But modern debt itself takes several different forms. Modern debt-financed capital investment, of course, dates back to the early days of mercantile capitalism, and continues unabated under industrial capitalism. ‘The public debt [was] one of the most powerful levers of primitive accumulation’ from early on, Marx notes (1887: Chap. 31 Para. 15). But as capitalist production develops and massifies, the ‘realization problem’ emerges, as we have seen, and debt-financed consumption arises alongside debt-financed production. Indeed as long as profit gets extracted from the entire sum of exchanges between wages and commodity prices, capitalism requires debt-financed consumption in order to survive. But debt-financed consumption itself takes two very different forms. The first was the great Keynesian-New-Deal-Fordist-welfare-state gambit, whereby states would go into debt in hard times to bail out capital through deficit spending, with the expectation, supposedly, that the debt would be repaid in good times. Except that, as we know, the debt never does get repaid; instead, it continues to grow and grow and eventually goes through the ceiling – until or unless the ceiling itself is conveniently moved, as it has been repeatedly in the United States by bipartisan acts of Congress. But the debt ceiling can’t be moved forever, at least not without exposing the whole capitalist accounting system as a massive hoax or Ponzi scheme. The inevitable conclusion is that capitalism has been living on borrowed time for at least the last 83 years – or on borrowed money, which as we know is more or less the same thing. Nation states around the world, and not just the United States, face this long-term ‘sovereign debt crisis,’ as it is called – Argentina, notoriously, a decade ago; Greece, Italy, Spain, and Ireland more recently – with no final solution in sight. As the Occupy movement spread around the world, it often focused on this form of debt. But in the United States, the ‘original’ OWS focused on the other form of debt, which we can call neoliberal debt or indentured debt peonage – the kind that Deleuze associates with what he calls control society. In this form, some of the debt required to keep capitalism afloat gets displaced from sovereign states onto private individuals (home mortgages, car loans, student loans, credit card retail debt, and so on). While private consumer debt is hardly new, the scale of predatory abuse of consumers perpetrated by finance capital, including most notably in home mortgages and student loans, went through the roof, and were a key motivation for OWS, and for the choice of Wall Street as the place to occupy in the first place.

Minor marxism offers another kind of explanation for OWS choosing Wall Street as its prime target, which has to do with the nature of debt to begin with. Marx likens the role of ‘so-called primitive accumulation’ in bourgeois political economy to that of original sin in theology: it is crucial to everything that follows, but it itself remains unexamined and/or unexplained. Deleuze and Guattari offer a very different account of ‘primitive accumulation:’ on their account, pre-capitalist accumulation is responsible for the appropriation of surplus-labor long before the rise of capitalism, and the consolidation of capitalism as a mode of production entails the transfer of what had been an infinite debt from gods or despots to capital itself. What had been owed to them in various forms of tribute or taxation is henceforth owed to capital in the form of interest. This means that finance capital has not just a historical precedent (as most Marxists will admit, from the period of mercantile capitalism), but a theoretical precedence as well. For major Marxism, credit becomes possible because of, and out of, the surplus generated by capitalist production; the dialectical account occupying the first few hundred pages of Capital, Volume One shows how through a process of increasing abstraction money emerges from in-kind exchange, and then how the commodification of labor-power enables money to become capital, and finally how interest on money represents a share of the surplus-value generated through the production process owed to finance capital. Deleuze and Guattari, by contrast, insist that finance capital is prior to industrial capital not just at the historical emergence of capitalism, but in principle and throughout the history of capitalism. This is so in principle because Deleuze and Guattari follow Nietzsche in understanding money to be primarily a vehicle for debt and the establishment and enforcement of unequal power relations rather than a vehicle for the exchange of equivalents among formally equal parties. For minor marxism, then, ownership of capital is first and foremost the power to create value ex nihilo, if only for the purpose of subsequently introducing it into the production process in order to appropriate even more surplus-value. Modern state regulations, it is true, require what’s called a ‘cash reserve ratio’ – which means that banks must hold some modicum of assets against which to make loans; recently, these ratios have been found to be scandalously low, and have in some cases led to bankruptcy: but the point is that the cash reserve ratio for banks is never anywhere near 100% – so even if technically speaking capital is not being created completely ex nihilo, it is nonetheless the case that most of it is, and that a major function of the finance sector is, in the strongest sense, to invent or create fictitious capital for investment in productive enterprises, with the expectation that surplus-value will be generated and some of it paid back in interest. With Wall Street’s development of complex derivatives and markets for insuring them, the disparity between actual ‘industrial’ value and fictitious ‘financial’ value became too great and too obvious – yet another reason for choosing Wall Street as the prime target for the Occupy movement.

Minor marxism focuses on the dependence (or ‘precarity’) generated by so-called primitive accumulation, and particularly by the degree of dependence accompanying the wholesale fabrication of ubiquitous debt relations by contemporary finance capital, among which the home mortgage and student debt crises became the most visible, and therefore became precipitating factors in the Occupy movement. A student debt-strike is one of the most important ideas to emerge from the aftermath of OWS – but there is no reason to limit such a strike to students, when practically everyone suffers from the imposition of debt in one form or another. But eliminating or reducing debt is by no means the only laudable goal of the Occupy movement: its sights were set on far more than that. By modeling post-capitalist and post-representative social relations, OWS points to a more far-reaching and thoroughgoing transformation of contemporary society, which perhaps only a slow-motion general strike, based on principles similar to those instantiated in OWS, will be able to bring about.

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Nomadology of Institutions revisited

Toward the end of Part Two of this essay, I suggested that institutions embody what Lyotard calls “language-games” – institutions, in other words, include what Deleuze & Guattari refer to as collective assemblages of enunciation.  One of the critical advantages of Deleuze & Guattari’s formulation is the distinction they draw between two forms of collective enunciation or language-games: the oedipal or state-form and the anti-oedipal or nomadic form of the war-machine. One instantiation of this distinction is the ethological differentiation of herds from packs.

Herd animals form an undifferentiated mass, and they all follow a single leader; this for Deleuze & 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. The kinds of change produced by mutation machines, meanwhile, vary widely. Deleuze & 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.

Another important aspect of the distinction between nomadic and state-form language-games involves the kinds of authority pertaining to each; this aspect was covered in Part Three. Yet another aspect involves the relation of institutions to (their) death, which was also addressed in Part III – but only incompletely. I would want to add this: Just as the destitution or precarity visited on most people by primitive accumulation perverts the psychological “instinct” of self-preservation by giving it exaggerated important in psychic dynamics, so the “instinct” of institutional self-preservation has a similarly inflationary effect, such that instead of dying constant “little deaths” by continually transforming itself in light of new circumstances and indeed new objectives, institutions operate above all to preserve their existing form and chartered aims.  This is part of what Deleuze & Guattari mean by the perversion of death (its transformation into an instinct) attendant on its repression under capitalism.

multitudinous

I almost posted a thought for the last reading, Multitude. I decided to refrain for a couple reasons…. One reason being that I never finished the reading… But I wasn’t compelled to finish it, either. But reading Beasley-Murray’s conclusion (or, secondary elaborations, as Jameson calls his lengthy conclusion), it still feels relevant.  The crux of the almost-post focused on ‘spirit of engagement’, and how I feel wholly dissatisfied by H & N’s narrative style. I can’t say I disagree, necessarily, with their articulation of Empire, or Multitude, but I can say I don’t respond to their ‘attitude’, for lack of a better word….

When I read Deleuze- or Deleuze and Guattari- it brings me joy. The way in which they work through ideas I find inspiring, and their characteristic ‘movement’ between poles of a concept is infinitely helpful as a strategy for understanding something in its complexity, to the best of one’s ability. I feel strongly about classic dialectical strategies and I loathe binaries. Both feel artificially constructed and what results, I think, is an often thin articulation of two opposing points of view, in order to advance the third position. Even if that third position feels ‘right’, the process of getting there leaves much to be desired, at least for me. And when a particular position is advanced, like Empire or Multitude, as concepts, the way in which H & N articulate the pervasiveness of the concepts, the inevitability or teleology of the narrative, I end up feeling like I don’t really have a lot of room to ‘move’. They have (or, really, ‘one has’, as this is less about H & N, per se, than a stylistic tendency) constructed a particular narrative in which they forcefully advance a particular position. I feel hemmed in, and I find myself wanting to ‘pick a fight’ and offer as many points that contradict the narrative. I find myself wanting some concrete specificity for what feels like generalizations… (and it also stands as a consistent reminder to be ‘mindful’ with my own work.)

I’m not really sure what that is about, feeling like I have no room to move; feeling crabby about it. But as one who often reads against the grain, the style of thinking becomes really important for me, as I often take concepts or strategies and attempt make them my own. Or at the very least, it stands as a positive example of how I imagine myself to write, or rather, my aspiration to write as such. So, H & N make me crabby. D & G, they make me happy.

The piece by Beasley-Murray made me happy. He takes the concept of the multitude and gives it the space and attention that I often feel is missing with H & N. His careful comparison/explication of a number of concepts, like contract, contact, common, corruption, his overarching concept of ambivalence, etc., all nicely unpack the concepts in relation to H & N’s project. It feels carefully considered, while not feeling overly ‘safe’. This process does a couple of things- through ambivalence, it becomes more clear that there are/can be negative manifestations of the multitude, it highlights the ‘characteristics’ of multitude and empire, showing how similar they are in some ways, which ultimately points to the slipperiness of language and how constructing a concept and assigning it a name should be done carefully.

With D & G, they insist on the same kind of ambivalence of a concept, or what my earlier post on language called ‘neutral’; there are good assemblages and bad assemblages, productive lines of flight and suicidal ones; the concept in and of itself is but one thing. How it is manifested or actualized is wholly contingent. H & N recapture the ‘multitude’ and dress it as positive and productive, one that fits into their overall theory nicely. But this fixing of a definition stands in contrast to the spirit of D & G’s engagement. Considering the subjective nature of ethics, the role of encounter, what is considered to be held in ‘common’ in the multitude, etc., Beasley-Murray convincingly, through his careful articulations/engagement with H & N’s work, reinvests their work with the ambivalence that feels extremely important and necessary.

language.

“How are we to understand the autonomy that multitudes enjoy but crowds do not?” (711)

“A crowd thinks in images, and the image itself immediately calls up a series of other images, having no logical connection with the first” (703)

Inadequate knowledge, recalling Spinoza and the proposition that states that we draw a correlation between unlike things… “The crowd’s desperate desire for a shared focus…stems from a constant collective anxiety about its own disintegration.” (704)  Mazzy points to a clear ‘shift’ in attitudes with regards to a group of individuals, in which the crowd-cum-multitude has agency, or rather, “it takes the collective rather than the individual as the site of freedom, but – it turns out – only if the multitude’s emergent energies remain pure, uncompromised by actually existing in social institutions.”  Or perhaps, “emergent integrity of collectivities.” (707) Painted as a site of potential, the multitude thus offers a possible world in which, presumably, the heady singularities are dialed in to their desires and collective energy.

Not having read Le Bon, I cannot speak to his handling of the text, but Mazzy states, “Le Bon remarks that crowds act ‘far more under the influence of the spinal cord than of the brain.’” I can’t help but compare that unreasoned pure response to stimuli to pure ‘emergent energies’ that presumably act not from reason, but rather an unspoken surge of collective desire. How can we discern whether this collective desire is ‘desperate’ or ‘pure’?” And how do we know whether the gathering is ‘inert’ or has a ‘vital spark’? And recalling the Holland article, does this leave room for the ‘incorporeal transformations’ that may be taking place, but not immediately visible?

And not having read Multitude, I cannot speak to Mazzy’s mishandling of that either. But, in the spirit of discussion (given my ‘not having read’ state of being), where this thought experiment takes me is two places, the first one being language. Wikipedia makes a distinction between  ‘a crowd’ and ‘the crowd’, in which one suggests a located group of individuals in time and space (though not necessarily) while the latter suggests an amorphous collection of mindless bodies. A multitude is equally amorphous ‘singularities’, though decidedly painted in terms that offer greater potential. Mazzy suggests that we are in the ‘age’ of the Multitude, and I cannot help but wonder, just because the language has changed, has the state of being?

The other place it takes me is to D & G, and the idea of a neutral concept. They repeatedly make the distinction between puissance and pouvoir. Both address notions of power, but how that power is manifested or actualized is radically different, whereas the former yields productive potential, the latter is negative, dominating. I cannot help but think of both the crowd and the multitude as possibly offering the same kind of distinction, regardless of terms. Might they not offer both a similar positive and negative manifestation? If it is accurate that the “multitudes express and produce, first of all, habit: ‘Habit is the common in practice…Habits create a nature that serves as the basis of life.’” (709-10) it seems it would be wise to regard multitudes somewhat suspiciously, given how pernicious habits can be in their negative manifestations.

Response to “Social and Material (dis)Organization of the City”

(I’m re-posting my response to Juuso here, since discussions sometimes get lost in comments…)

I’ve been thinking along these same lines but more in terms of the compulsion to order space, rather than the disorder that arises in the wake of social struggle. But to stay closer to the questions you raise: I’m reminded of an article by Yael Navaro-Yashin, “Affective spaces, melancholic objects: ruination and the production of anthropological knowledge”

In it she investigates how the affect of melancholy arises in the Turkish Cypriots who appropriated space and objects from their Greek counterparts during the mid-70s war and partition of the country, and uncovers evidence of melancholy in everyday parlance that reveals the residents’ feelings toward appropriated property: specifically their use of the word “loot” in a self-deprecating way. Interviews with residents of an area near a military border reveal feelings of confinement and suffocation, which she interprets as a relationship between negative affective states and the aesthetic of ruination amongst which these people live.

This obviously isn’t politics directly, but it’s certainly an insight into the affective engagement with a ruinous environment, or as Holland says, citing D&G’s terminology, an “incorporeal transformation.” And though Harvey does actually mention the three elements of schizoanalysis — “political and economic powers of capital, along with its hegemonic ideological practices and its powerful grasp upon political subjectivities” (p. 120) — I don’t think his disciplinary background really gives him the ammunition he needs to engage with their interactions.

Harvey (arrgghh!) and Holland (phew!)

asamblea

OK, I am able to breathe a little easier after reading the Holland piece.  The Harvey chapters had me wanting to give up on the left.

The Harvey chapter on Occupy Wall Street is 99% ressentiment. He rails obsessively against the powers that be. They are evil, and we must resist. He gives no attention to what we are, what we are capable of, what kind of potentials the 99% has. In the chapter it seems we can only be good by negation, because we are not the 1%, and the 1% is evil. This is precisely the kind of thinking Nietzsche decries in Beyond Good and Evil because, he says, it blinds us to our own powers.

Harvey characterizes people in Occupy as gathering together to talk about…the powers that be, about what the 1% is doing and how we can oppose them (p. 161). He says those that gathered wanted their opinions heard and their needs attended to (p. 162). He entirely misses the unique power of the movement: in Egypt, in Spain, in Greece, and also in NYC. The key was that people gathered not only to speak to, make demands on, and oppose the 1% (many did, to be sure), they also gathered to encounter each other.  Holland does well to emphasize the ways participants made real an alternative democratic society, though food provision, libraries, and general assemblies. So many participants did not come to make demands on the liberal-democratic state, because they knew, as Holland puts it, that the system was hopelessly corrupt (or, as the Spanish put it, que se vayan todos, (echoing the Argentinians ten years before)). So many came instead to ask each other what alternative they wanted to begin building together. The Greeks said this loud and clear in the First Declaration of the assembly in Syntagma:

For a long time decisions have been made for us, without consulting us. We…have come to Syntagma Square… because we know that the solutions to our problems can only be provided by us. We call all residents of Athens…and all of society to fill the public squares and to take their lives into their own hands.  In these public squares we will shape our claims and our demands together.

I guess we can’t give Holland too much credit for stressing this.  It was crystal clear and hard to miss.  How Harvey fails to see it is a mystery.  Ostrich-like.

But the thing I like most about the Holland is what I think D&G are particularly vital for now, what H&N pick up to a degree and what Virno’s idea of exodus gets at very well: that we absolutely must turn toward ourselves now.  We must wean ourselves from our obsession with the apparatuses of capture and their endless power to contain us.  We must leave off rubbing ourselves raw against the bars of our cage.  We must begin paying far more attention to what we can do, to the kinds of worlds we can make on our own, that we are already making on our own.  We must withdraw from capitalism, from the state, in a thoughtful and critical manner (lodge yourself on the strata, learn them, and then experiment with escapes), and we must, at the same time, begin-and-continue building the other worlds we want instead.  These other worlds must spread by contagion, as in Holland, or as I like to say, with Spinoza and Calvino, they must grow and spread according to their own internal drives.  Withdraw-and-create; exodus-and-invention.  Importantly, and true to D&G, I think, Holland hopes for a tipping point beyond which capital and the state begin to wither away because they are no longer necessary.  I share this hope, and I am currently trying to argue that this vision is something D&G offer that Ranciere doesn’t, despite the many strengths of the latter.

Speaking of spreading, though, I would push back on Holland on at least one point that I think is not insignificant.  He implies in several places that OWS was somehow a starting point from which similar movements spread.  That is true within the States perhaps, but I think it is important to remember that OWS was a very late comer in a wave of such democratic desire that washed across the world.  Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries; Greece and Spain; Israel; Chile; all were at a full boil while NYC looked on.  The Spanish (May) had been loudly pleading with the US for months to join their revolution when OWS finally got off the ground (September).  I remember thinking, that September, that finally something had begun in the US (though I wrongly expected it not to amount to anything).  It is very important not to narrate the Greeks, Spanish, Egyptians, Tunisians, etc. into the background.  They were the first, the loudest, the most creative, and the best.  They faced the more dire political and economic situations.  They deserve pride of place in the narrative about the democratic uprisings of 2010 and ff.  OWS should be celebrated energetically, but it should also, to an extent, always stand humbly in the shadow of the other extraordinary movements that came first.  Sometimes America is last and least.