El Kilombo & Michael Hardt in Conversation
LESSONS IN EMPIRE
El Kilombo: So much has been said about the concept of Empire since the publication of your book with Toni Negri, how would you summarize the importance of this concept for political action today?
Michael Hardt: One of the problems some people seemed to have with the concept of Empire was that is poses a difficulty for organizing. In other words, it seems that the notion that the emerging global order is organized not by a single imperialist state, or even by a small group of dominant nation states, but rather by a wide network of collaborating powers, including the dominant nation states of course, but also major corporations, supranational institutions, NGOs, etc. – that hypothesis of Empire, that there was no single center to global power, seems from a certain perspective to make organizing and protest impossible. In other words, you can protest but there is nobody home. Now, already the globalization movements from the late 1990s and early 2000s were addressing this new situation. In fact, the way I see the various examples of summit-hopping from that period as trying to articulate that theory of Empire: they recognized that it’s not just the US that’s in control of global order (if you did think that, you should be protesting in front of the White House every week), but rather the protests were an attempt to identify the new enemy through a of series of experimentations: with the IMF and the World Bank, the G8, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, that these were all revealing nodes in the network of the new global command. The problem of course that everyone realized at the time and that is even more pressing today is summit-hopping is only organized around these events and doesn’t leave us with anything else. Today when we’re faced once again with confronting the new global order, which is not simply dictated by the US or by the White House, we have to address this problem again, of how to organize when the powers we’re facing are multiple and dispersed. And how to do it in such a way that leaves us with lasting organizations.
EK: From our perspective the first thing that the discussion around the notion of Empire has accomplished is bring us back to the very basic idea that there is no struggle against capitalism as such, that one must always take time to define the parameters of what the struggle is today. You must always begin by conducting a survey of sorts to understand what’s happening now so that we can act accordingly, it’s never enough to simply denounce capitalism and its relation to imperialism as if these phenomena and their relations were timeless.
MH: I agree that we can’t just reject capital as such at an abstract level, that we have to recognize or invent concrete instances for resistance and struggle. But how does having to think Empire force you or allow you to recognize the concrete situation?
EK: For example, the givenness of inter-imperialist competition, or imperialism as the functioning parameters of capitalism were for a long time a simple given. But today we have to go back, and the concept of Empire gives us the capacity to at least open the discussion and say, if we’re not dealing with that situation, what is the situation that we’re dealing with today? It helps us to remember that we must always keep asking this question.
MH: It’s not the nature of what were calling Empire that forces this; it’s the notion that you have to rethink constantly the conditions of capital, and therefore the conditions of struggle. So whether you agree with our notion of Empire or not, maybe that part doesn’t matter, its just having to recognize that in capitalist relations and command something is new.
EK: Although it matters in the sense that reanalyzing the conditions and the tactics of struggle require a new analysis. So we were using the example of imperialism, where we still have anti-imperialist struggles because some motions, some particular gestures, look like imperialist gestures, but in fact are not. This is where the conceptual innovation makes quite a difference.
MH: Right. If you’re fighting against an old form of enemies, you risk not only being ineffective but even reinforcing them.
EK: Exactly. We also feel that the concept of Empire has had a second positive effect on the U.S. political scene; political agency in U.S. based activism has tended to be displaced onto subjects in the “third world.” The concept of Empire, this massive dispersal of capitalist networks which exceeds any given nation-state, forces us to question this displacement and instead attempt to place ourselves at the center, or at least within possibilities for political action, to imagine ourselves both as subjects of capitalist impositions as well as agents of possible change. It really puts an end to that bad habit of displacing our agency.
MH: To add to that, I wonder if it is the same thing to say that what we have to recognize is that the need for activism in the US is becoming more like the need for activism elsewhere, so in that way too, US exceptionalism is also coming to an end. Part of the exceptionalism was manifested by those practices of a politics of guilt and displacement, making our political actions not about us but only about people elsewhere.
PROTEST AND REVOLUTION
EK: This recognition is important in determining the possibilities and limitations for protest politics in the US, such as the upcoming demonstrations against the Republican and Democratic National Conventions this summer. For us, it is first important to clarify what these protest events should not be about. We need to disinvest from making demands toward political parties and the State, because the problems we are facing run much deeper than the party system – which from our perspective is now a product of media simulation and the spectacularization of politics. In that sense, we shouldn’t be waging protest as a plea or appeal to these parties, or as an appeal to the media. It is through media spectacle that the politics of the politicians is legitimated: through the circulation of images, the polling of ‘public opinion,’ political partnerships with civil society, and the permission and even encouragement of “dissent” which supposedly signals a healthy democracy. The imagery of public protest in and of itself doesn’t challenge this schema, but can in fact play an integral role in this game of simulation that has replaced representation (as limited as this concept already is) as the substance of electoral politics.
This shouldn’t suggest, however, that there is nothing to be gained through the organization of these protests. If the focus is not outward and upward – aimed at the politicians, the parties, the media – but is oriented inward, for and among those of us struggling against capitalism in a multiplicity of ways, these gatherings can become productive spaces of encounter. By this we mean the meeting and exchanging of struggles, getting to know people, projects, and organizations with which we might otherwise never connect. Yet these extraordinary encounters in and of themselves are not sufficient for establishing an alternative to our current situation. The space of protest is a temporary one, and the type of encounter it can provide is all too brief. However, it would be a mistake to falsely oppose the brevity of such encounters with the constancy of organizations. A careful examination of these protests will always show the prior existence of extensive organization, while all organizational efforts necessarily come about through a series of unplanned encounters. Therefore, rather than oppose these phenomena or fix them into a model of supercession (i.e., from protest to organization), what we need is a politics that opens each to the other in a constant relation of mutual regeneration – as the continuous articulation, embodiment, and renewal of our own collective political desires. The potential of the events planned for the summer lies exactly in the opportunity to enact this other kind of politics.
MH: I am little worried about cutting off the notion of revolt… I agree with making primary the encounters of the process of organization, but that doesn’t prohibit, functioning secondarily, making demands on the state, demands on the Democratic Party, demanding a living wage from the city, or calling on any number of political powers, even organizing our own spectacles for the media. What present organizing is moving against is a primacy of spectacle and a primacy of demands, and even a primacy of indignation. It doesn’t seem to me the right way to think about it to refuse those, but rather subordinating those to the organizing practice.
EK: We believe that what is needed is a form of organizational force independent of those structures. We’re not saying “never spectacle and never demands” in a transcendental way, but only that we think at this particular moment, participating in the spectacle empties all meaning from the act, and requires that you evacuate any other platform to stand on. We’re discussing the relation between a movement and its demands of state institutions, and in short what we’re trying to get at is that in order to be able to have this discussion we have to build a movement first.
MH: But what the spectacle is, is really just allowing people to see in the dominant media that some of us don’t agree – that we don’t agree with the electoral process, that we don’t agree with the party platform, etc. Even when that objection isn’t given any content by the media, but just appears as people who are against, I still think it can have great effect.
It might seem like I’m contradicting myself, to first propose this idea of Empire, and then to advocate making these kinds of demands on the political powers and the US government but that’s exactly how I think we need to act in this context, without believing that they are sovereign powers, without believing that they can determine their own fate, we still have to constantly make demands on them, in particular to open more spaces for ourselves to act autonomously. So I agree with you on the priority of organizational relationships, but I think that we could maintain a secondary mission also, of expressing our indignation and rage and hatred of the powers that be. I’m only worried that your exclusive focus on organization might cut off those necessary functions.
EK: Just to clarify, we’re not trying to avoid discussion with these institutions or these parties for the sake of revolutionary purity. That would be ridiculous. But we still need to have a discussion about the effectivity of political action towards reform. So we have to constantly question the effectivity of the way demands are posed and the tie of organizational structure to those forms of demands. For example, the effective provision of education by the autonomous communities of Chiapas has had way more of an impact on Mexican nation policy on education than if the Zapatistas had gone to the national government and made demands that there should be educational reform, because in a way, the national government is then forced to attempt to occupy that issue by addressing the underlying demand. Or, another example, the Black Panther Party here in the US didn’t say, “we want a national breakfast program,” instead, they built a breakfast program that fed tens of thousand of children. J. Edgar Hoover identified these programs as the greatest weapon in the hands of the Panthers and subsequently the federal government stepped in to create free breakfast programs in public schools. The same thing took place with the Panthers’ sickle cell anemia project.
MH: So it is more a question of what forms of organization are best for gaining reforms, the effectiveness of political action in that sense, because, after all, any real reforms are oriented toward revolution. In Italy recently, some of the most successful political activity has been really broad, “multitudinous” organizing campaigns against large public works, which are bad for the environment and bad for the local residents, and then most recently the most inspiring struggle has been against the expansion of a U.S. military base in Vicenza. And I would say the actual object of these struggles – stopping the expansion of the base for instance – is itself important, but it turns out to be secondarily important compared to the lasting organization that’s been built in Vicenza, of the different groups that came together that hadn’t been working together before but discovered new possibilities for organization. So I wouldn’t say that stopping the base doesn’t matter, its important, even if it is secondary to the connections and the new forms of organization that have emerged and the construction of a model for organizing that is being repeated elsewhere.
EK: So, in a way we’re back to where we began, saying that that these protests are important to the extent that they provide us all a base for constructing encounters and new organizational forms But it still might be useful for us to distinguish the effectiveness of achieving reforms from the goal or intent of reform; so if we establish an autonomous institution, and that causes a certain response or some kind of reform, then it has been an effective action, but reform was never the goal. So it is still important from our perspective to maintain a distinction between organizations that set out for reforms, and organizations that achieve reforms.
MH: You can tell the difference between the two by the fact that in that in the first model, once the reform is achieved, everybody goes home and never sees each other again; while in the other model, the achievement of the reform is just one step in a much larger process that continues on.
EK: Absolutely, and nobody should deny the importance of achieving those reforms, so in a way we’re saying the same thing; and for us what is most urgent right now is building the organizational power that gives us the power to force useful reforms.
A NEW CYCLE OF STRUGGLE: EVENT AND ENCOUNTER
MH: At this point then, it might be helpful to situate the challenges for organizing today in the context of the recent cycle of struggles that have now come to an end. It seems to me that we lived through an incredibly productive and innovative cycle of struggles that lasted from the mid-1990s until about 2003, which was oriented toward questions of globalization, especially in North America and Europe; and the power of it was precisely its diversity in organization and in agendas. In other words, it was not required that the movements unify under a single leadership or support even a common agenda. Rather the strength was precisely in the networks of groups, organized autonomously, cooperating together. But throughout that period, everyone in the movements recognized at least two limitations. One limitation was primarily geographical, which was that the movements in North America and Europe were oriented towards global issues but never managed, despite numerous attempts, adequately to extend outside of the global north. The second limitation was that organizations were centered on protest and therefore oriented toward a kind of summit-hopping, and therefore there was a lack of an institutionalization of movements. That movement came to a kind of forced end with the war on terror and the need to combat the second Bush administration, but these movements – anti-war, anti-Bush, in 2003 and 2004 – though of course necessary, destroyed the multiplicity of the organizing of the previous era. Because, by necessity it seemed, they required a single central agenda, and a unified organizational technique; and partly as a consequence all the excitement and innovation dropped out of the movements. Today we’re at the beginning of a third cycle of struggles that in some ways can pick up where the globalization protest movements left off, but maybe now we’re in a position now to address its limitations better. Last summer’s events at the G-8 summit in Germany near Rostock were a good start. Maybe the RNC and DNC events can continue this.
EK: Perhaps one place we might want to begin this discussion of moving toward a new cycle of struggle is what we referred to above as the necessary interplay, or mutual regeneration, of protest and organization. From our perspective, this would provide a way for the new cycle of struggles to move beyond a certain impasse that has formed within the alterglobalization movements – between on the one hand, organizational models that tout effectivity but don’t allow for difference, and on the other, the randomness of encounters that don’t allow for the development and consistency of new collective habits.
In El Kilombo, we feel that moving beyond this impasse implies the construction of permanent spaces of encounter, where no single subject (immigrant, student, industrial worker) is believed to be the principal agent of change, but rather where encounters across subjective positions allows for the creation of new collective habits. That is, this form of organization is capable not only of acting to provide for basic needs, but also of producing itself as a new collective subject (a community). In contrast to the vacuous “grassroots” rhetoric used by non-profits, we have to be careful to note here that community never pre-exists this process of self-constitution; and creating a community is not simply the process of recognizing people as they are, but rather acting collectively on who we want to become. Therefore, we need to reclaim this capacity for ourselves, to generate and sustain community, to exercise power collectively, to realize projects of autonomy and self-determination. We need the organizational consistency and structure to deal with real-life problems and be open to new desires, so we can move beyond the politics of the politicians and the paralyzing spectacle. If we look at the Latin American movements, for example, it becomes clear that only the ones that have been able to make this leap toward what you call ”institutionalization” have remained vibrant and effective and they have in many ways avoided the pitfalls that have tended to trap us here in the North.
MH: I love the way you use the notion of encounter, and it seems to me you’re actually talking about two theories of encounter. There is one notion of encounter that functions in the event; in other words, at a protest movement there are new connections that are made that open up towards the future and towards different kinds of organizing; let’s call this the event encounter. Then there’s another kind of encounter you’re talking about which has to do with continuity and what I think of as the construction of institutions. So this is an encounter that’s repeatable and this kind of encounter makes clear how your notion of community is different from the traditional notion of community. I think you’re right to find the idea of community creepy, and this notion of the encounter allows you to draw it away from these organic, fixed, identitarian, even familial notions, and allows you to bring community back to the common. What this second kind of encounter is about is a kind of institution of the common, in a way drawing out or developing our common powers that we find through our repeated engagement with each other.
EK: Shifting to this second kind of encounter seems to be a particularly difficult task now, because within Empire politics has been delinked from a specific mode of spatialized power – the nation-state – and as such, we are struggling to define the new parameters for the practice of politics and organization. We need a new map for understanding the territorial and spatial dimensions of power, a cartography that allows us to see how empire functions as an extremely spatially intense form of exploitation. The struggle to remove the producers of metropolitan forms of cooperation is most literally a struggle to displace them to the periphery of global cities, leaving behind remnants of their collective habits and practices for the enjoyment of others. We would like to be really concrete about this: we believe this is exactly what the issue of gentrification and the current foreclosure crisis are actually about. In the United States, this has taken the form of the largest transfer of wealth from families of color to banks, brokers, and investment firms in history; specifically, $164 billion – $213 billion over the past eight years. This scrambling of the geography has made it difficult to remember that all political practice necessitates spatialization, and therefore requires a struggle over territory.
Having said that, we have to recognize that although the struggle for territory is necessary, it is never sufficient. The aim of our struggle is not simply the control of territory, but rather the effective deployment of space as the necessary conduit for the production of collective habits which make possible a whole series of new social relations. (Perhaps rather than territory, it would make more sense to talk about “habitat.”) Therefore, in reality there is no such thing as a struggle against gentrification, there can only be the defense and organizing of territory as a tactical move in the struggle to dismantle Empire.
MH: So, on the one hand we were talking about the importance of the event, such as the protest event, when we make new connections and expand our networks – an extensive development – and now, on the other hand, you are emphasizing the need to create lasting institutions, like El Kilombo, through a kind of intensive development.
EK: Yes, because we’re dealing with two kind of events – first is the question of unexpected events, and then there is the question of trying to appropriate the means of producing/precipitating events.
MH: The second kind of encounter, though, the intense repeated engagement with each other, I don’t know if I’d want to call it an event.
EK: Don’t you think that the production of difference that would create the common is an event?
MH: Well, does it happen once or does it happen everyday, continually in our interaction with each other? What do you consider the “event” of El Kilombo? It seems counterintuitive to talk about habituation as event.
EK: By habituation, though, we don’t mean repetition. So it is habituation yes, but the habituation of encounter – the habituation of innovation.
MH: So one is a punctual dividing line of before and after, and then the other identifies the event with creativity and making that isn’t temporally isolated but is a duration, a procession of instances or a constant process of creation. So the question might be, why call it an event anymore?
EK: Because that highlights the innovation involved in it – despite the fact that it happens everyday, it is new every time. The event of Kilombo is the territory that becomes inhabited and habitual. But we should also be very clear about this point, we’re not talking about localism or turning inward, but creating a collective body and terrain that allows us to act with and in relation to others. It gives us the means to act and interact more effectively and more cooperatively, not just within and among ourselves but in relation to other communities – opening in fact more surfaces of struggle, not fewer. This is why we need practices and habits and collective ways of inhabiting our territory that keep it open to more and more connections.
MH: And that brings us back to what can be useful in the RNC and DNC actions later this summer, not only to show our dissent but also for the opportunity to open up and make more connections with other singularities. That is an extensive work that complements the intensive work of inhabiting the territory, as you say.
Holding together these two kinds of encounter, these two kinds of events, may be one way of thinking how we can take this new cycle of struggles beyond the limitations of the previous ones.
POST SCRIPT (added in late 1009)
MH: Our conversation took place just before the Republican and Democratic National Conventions and now, a year after Obama’s election, some of the points we made seem ever more urgent. In particular, the fate of the electoral mobilization for Obama highlights the need for movements to create autonomous institutions and lasting encounters. As many have noted, the remarkable Obama electoral mobilization drew in several ways from the movements, appropriating the “sí, se puede” slogan from the May 2006 immigration protests, pulling in the anti-war movements, engaging a wide spectrum of anti-racist movements and institutions, and so forth. The election was indeed an extraordinarily significant event, in my view, but the big question after the November victory was whether this mobilization would transform into a movement and continue moving forward or whether everyone would de-mobilize, like tired troops after a war: go home and “let Obama do his work,” trusting in the structures of representation. Well, it is clear that at least so far the electoral mobilization has not proven to be a lasting encounter.
EK: In order to analyze the potential for encounter with regards to the last election, we would like to first take a step back and state that for El Kilombo, the election of Barack Obama presents a deeply ambivalent situation that poses both tremendous dangers and obstacles as well as an intensely heightened awareness of the necessity for a deep transformation of our society. To begin with, the danger presented for social movements consists of the powerful draw of the near total “spectacularization of politics” and the near impotence (at this moment) for social movements to act within this realm. If we were to accept a very simple definition of power as “the capacity to define phenomena and make them act in a desired fashion” (per Huey Newton), we cannot avoid the conclusion that the realm of “the politics of the politicians” is an arena of diminishing if not completely non-existent returns for those interested in democratizing our society. Rather, it is an arena increasingly dominated by enormous corporate and political monopolies, by the logic of advertising rather than that of principle, and by the persona of the commodity-individual exchanged and promoted therein rather than by political orientation. Yet the circulation of this spectacle as a completely vacuous and therefore infinitely interpretable discourse, supported by its polling and preference databases, has the pernicious effect of appearing to allow for the participation in and even the determination of the political process by people and organizations independent of the political sphere proper and those acting from “above.” That is, it increasingly appears as though this process was in fact determined from “below,” or even as if it constituted a social movement in and of itself. It is extremely doubtful that under these conditions an encounter in a strict sense has or can take place.
MH: It’s interesting how you pose the spectacle in inverse relation to the encounter. Where there is spectacle there can be no encounter and, I suppose, conversely, the creation of encounters destroys the spectacle. This seems to me an extension of conventional notions of political representation and, too, the critique of representation: representation claims both to connect and to separate, that is to link the representatives to the represented, making them accountable to a certain extent and at certain times, but also to create a gap that separates the representatives, giving them a limited independence. At least that’s the claim conventionally associated with political representation. Well, on the one hand, your notion of the spectacularization of politics tips the balance of such a relation, minimizing the connection and maximizing the separation of representatives from the represented. And, on the other, the logic of encounter refuses entirely the separation implied by representation itself. So would it be right to say that regarding the Obama camp you see in this year a movement from encounter to spectacle, that is, from the promise of encounter during the election campaign to realization of spectacle in the Obama government?
EK: We feel that whether the Obama camp ever constituted an encounter is exactly the question that needs to be brought to the forefront. For us, the Obama campaign, Advertising Age’s “2008 marketer of the year,” is a paradigmatic case of the spectacularization of politics and its devastating consequences for social change. Toward the end of the Bush II years, and after the post 9/11 fear and paranoia harnessed by that administration began to wear off, there appeared to be a deep skepticism within the U.S. public toward the entirety of the political process. Given this skepticism, it is no surprise that the Obama campaign attempted to depict Barack Obama as the consummate “outsider” with the credentials of a “community organizer” from South Chicago who stood for “hope” and “change.” Necessary for this depiction was what sociologist and rocker Angel Luis Lara has termed the “vampirization” of existing social movements, a process which has included Obama’s use of prophetic oratory closely associated with the Black radical tradition as exemplified by Martin Luther King Jr. (that “preacher from Atlanta” to whom Obama frequently alludes but never names), Malcolm X, and his own, now disowned, pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
In addition, this “vampirization” is also exemplified by Obama’s appropriation of the social force generated by the migrant protests of the spring of 2006 (which included the largest single day protest in the history of the United States on May 1, 2006) through the (mis)translation, total decontextualization, and transformation of this movement’s motto, “¡si se puede!” into Obama’s campaign slogan and into what he has alternatively referred to as “that American creed”: “Yes, we can!” It is important to take note of how the agent of repression identified by the migrant movement as their object of protest (i.e. that polity called the United States of America) in Obama’s hands becomes the originating subject of the statement of protest (“America”). “¡Si se puede!” is not an “American” creed as brand-Obama would like us to believe; it is rather the creed of those who today are brutally kept in the shadows and refused by “America.” Yet, this sleight of hand performs the dual function of appropriating the social force created by the migrant movement while simultaneously delinking that force from political principle. It is a paradigmatic example of the centrality of “induced” opposition in the contemporary “politics of the politicians”—an opposition reduced to the circulation of free floating signifiers carefully detached from the social struggles that originated them. Given this dependence on the social movements, the power of spectacle should not be thought of as some massive conspiracy from above. Rather, as Raul Zibechi has theorized in the rather disparate context of Argentina, this spectacle is the name for that place where the strategies of the capitalist relation, the “politics of the politicians,” and the impasse of social movements meet in a particularly skewed relation of force. (The impasse of social movements should be thought of in relation to our own incapacity to fully discern the radical difference between visibility and power. For more on this impasse, see “The Arts of Living in Common,” http://www.elkilombo.org/the-arts-of-living-in-common/).
Thus, in order to better understand the “vampirization” of the social movements it could be said that if there was an encounter within the Obama camp, it was one premised, despite outward appearances, on the hierarchical subjugation of key elements of that relation, and is therefore an encounter based on sad passions rather than joyful affects. That is, it is difficult to conceive that it constitutes an encounter at all.
MH: I think it’s important to keep in mind, even though it is not our primary concern here, that this spectacular form of rule as you describe it is not really advantageous for the Obama administration either. It is quite clear, as we have both said, that the Obama administration has not made space for or encouraged the movements. On the contrary, the governing strategy seems thus far to have been to quiet the movements and seek a national political consensus by appealing to the center and the right, negotiating with pharmaceutical and health insurance industries, for instance, in an effort to gain support for health care reform. That strategy of mediation has clearly not worked and, in fact, while quieting the movements on the Left the government has opened the space for some very strange, sometimes crazy outbursts on the Right, which often adopt, at least in appearance, the tactics of Left. It seems to me that sooner or later the Obama administration will need the reactivated power of the movements to push its agenda forward. This is part of what I think of as a shift from government to governance. Conventional practices of government and strategies of sovereignty, in other words, which attempt to construct a stable center of rule, are no longer possible. Governance, in contrast, is more like surfing, unmoored from sovereign rule and forced constantly to ride the waves of a wide variety of forces and inputs. My point in this context is that governance is only possible with the movements, feeding off their power.
EK: We couldn’t agree more that the shift from sovereign rule to governance is exactly what is at stake in the Obama administration. Yet, we see no democratic tendency within that shift in and of itself, we see rather the necessity to adequate our strategy to the parameters of a new battlefield. We feel we must raise the question of whether the Obama administration constitutes a form of governance fully within the neoliberal capitalist paradigm, and thus that it is therefore still up to us to think of what a communist governance for our times might look like. It may sound paradoxical, but couldn’t we say that the Obama campaign and administration constitute a form of governance if not exactly from above then certainly for above, and that the task of constituting a governance from below and for below is yet to come? For us it is important to take note that, unlike many of his “progressive” supporters who firmly believed that they were participating in a progressive political “movement,” Barack Obama has demonstrated himself to be acutely aware (as were his funders from finance, investment, and real estate) of the fact that his appeal is rather distant from political principal and instead lies squarely in the realm of a power made possible by the spectacular. As he has himself stated, “My treatment of the issues is often partial and incomplete,” so that, in effect, “I serve as a blank screen, upon which people of vastly different political stripes [can] project their own views.” Given this situation and the overall subordination of the circulation of the spectacle to the stability and long term goals of contemporary capitalism, it can be no surprise that brand-Obama’s “change” seems so uncomfortably similar to George W. Bush’s status quo: the extreme exacerbation of inequality through the largest wealth transfer in the history of the United States (a wealth transfer that has disproportionately affected Blacks and Latinos), the continuation of the war in Iraq, the expansion of the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan, the obliteration of habeas corpus, the privatization of the public school system, the complete neutralization of the demand for universal healthcare, the continued existence of torture bases at Guantanamo and elsewhere, the expansion of military force throughout Latin America, the refusal to abandon the policy of secret detentions, the growth of the logic and presence of policing in the US and the outrageous explosion of incarceration (again, disproportionately affecting the Black and Latino population), and… oh yeah, we almost forgot! Not a single word about a migratory amnesty for those who gave Obama his campaign slogan, but rather an expansion of the repressive deportation apparatus through the extended reach of “287(g).” From this perspective there can be little doubt that brand-Obama, its uncritical “progressive” supporters, and the politics which they “re-present” constitute a direct obstacle to the radical transformation of our society. Given these effects, we are tempted to go so far as to say that both Bush II and brand-Obama constitute different moments within the unfolding of a much larger process of neoliberal spectacularity composed of self-reinforcing counter-images of “fear” and “hope.” In this regard, the Spinozian analysis of encounter seems particularly useful. It is Spinoza who reminds us that both “hope” and “fear” are inextricable emotions that have no significance without the other: both arise as mere reactions to pain and therefore hinder our capacity to think and act (with hope constituting a sad-joyful passion and fear simply a sad passion) and thus to sustain active encounters.
MH: Perhaps because of (or despite) the fact that the Obama election has not meant “change,” at least so far, the movements find themselves in a kind of impasse or double-bind. During the eight years of the Bush government the oppositional stance of the movements was unproblematic, at least at a conceptual level. It was not always clear what tactics would be most effective but there was no question what and who we were against. With respect to the Obama administration, though, the movements need to invent a new approach and a new direction. On the one hand, Obama is not Bush and simple opposition is no longer adequate, especially when attacks on the government from the Right are increasingly intense. On the other hand, merely supporting the Obama team and trusting that they will represent us clearly won’t get us far. The pressure will build on this impasse, for instance, over the war in Afghanistan, where US military involvement seems likely to continue if not increase. The anti-war movements will have to reactivate, but with a new stance. Impasses like this, although on the surface they seem to be defined by stasis or even paralysis, often constitute instead periods of great conceptual creativity. The movements need to invent a mode of operation that is neither simple opposition nor support but rather creates a lasting and autonomous force that can push and interact with the government.
It’s interesting to think back again to when we were discussing these issues earlier. In the summer of 2008, at the time of the Democratic and Republican electoral Conventions the need for and the direction of protest was clear. In the first year of the Obama government there has been a feeling of disorientation, at least among certain sectors of the movements. But, as I said, such moments of impasse or even disorientation are not necessarily bad or unproductive. In fact, now is when reorientation and the invention of new directions can really take place.
EK: We tend to agree on this last point and, having laid out our position in the previous paragraphs, we want to insist that it is in no way meant to be a critique of Barack Obama. Such a critique would reduce our contemporary problem to the crisis of a given political representative when in fact we believe that it is at this very juncture, exactly after the heightened expectations for “change” raised by the Obama campaign, that it is most obvious that we are today experiencing a crisis of the entire system of representational politics, of representativity. Thus, in our view, both those who would read the above lines and accuse us of playing into the strategy of the right wing by criticizing Obama as well as those that now dedicate endless pages to a critique of Obama share what is in our eyes a flawed premise: that it is in the arena of the given system of political representation and its legitimation through the electoral apparatus that “power,” and therefore the future of the left, resides. Both positions fail to harness the massively raised expectations surrounding the election of Barack Obama in order to move us from an analysis centered around the crisis of representatives (Obama is better than Bush or alternatively, Obama is no better than Bush) toward actually coming to grips with the crisis of representativity and the urgent necessity of an alternative beyond it. In other words, neither position has recognized that it is not that we did not want the election of Barack Obama, but rather that we want and desperately need more than that election could ever provide. From our point of view these expectations can only be met today by acting from (a different) power, a power that we simply do not have in the realm of the spectacle but which unquestionably exists beyond that realm (an insight that we owe to the many non-parliamentary movements of the 1960s and 70s and of which we are constantly reminded by figures like Grace Lee Boggs). For El Kilombo then, the order of the day for the left (if one can be said to exist) is to pull the plug on the spectacle, to definitively alter the given relations of force between the strategies of capital, the “politics of the politicians,” and the impasse of social movements in favor of the social movements themselves by building on the power of autonomy. As that excess of power that exists in our favor between the Power of the spectacle and our own power to act beyond representation, autonomy cannot belong to the capitalist relation or the “politics of the politicians,” but must be built through the establishment of a worldwide network for generalized convivial self-governance in which, as Malcolm would say, “everything that is done for us, is done by us!”
In our experience, such a network may arise from two key actions that we feel are inextricable and mutually reinforcing (therefore, we list them in no particular order). First, we need to directly challenge the State’s monopoly on the provision of services (food, clothes, and shelter) which perhaps even more than violence keeps us at the mercy of the existing system of political representation, the extension of credit by the financial sector, and the unequal relations of force which they preserve. That is, we must first intervene beyond representation at the level of direct provision so as to allow ourselves a space to disengage from what in another discourse we might refer to as the reproduction of the existing relations of production. Second, we must understand that this intervention must go beyond mere survival through the provision of “things,” as these are simply preconditions to a larger goal: the constitution of a new social fabric where new relations to the earth and new relations to each other are made possible. We might say then that this second task is the formation of an “ecology” of affects (equally beyond representation) which give us certain criteria for the selection of desires that in turn allow us to produce encounters based on joy and solidarity, beyond the sadness and social wasteland produced within the realm of the spectacle. This is an ecology which is absolutely necessary if we are to definitively move beyond what we believe is quickly becoming an increasingly devastating and desperate global dialectic between “hope” and “fear,” a dialectic whose moment of synthesis can only be the event of our annihilation.
MH: This brings us back to the notion of two kinds of encounter and two kinds of event, but now the order is reversed. Earlier we were talking about how the specific and limited event-encounter at the actions surrounding the RNC and DNC could open up the possibility for the type of lasting, habituated encounters that involve the construction of territory, the creation of institutions, and the practices of autonomy. Now, it seems to me, in our discussion we are starting from this second notion of event-encounter, which serves, in part, as an antidote to spectacularlized politics and its regimes of representation, and recognizing the need to create or precipitate an event-encounter as rupture to break through the impasse and push forward the process. In the end these two kinds of event and encounter are never very distant from each other but neither are they the same thing. They are linked instead as poles of a relay in a movement that shuttles back and forth to open new possibilities.