[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
The cycle of struggles of the turn of the century has, against its participants’ best wishes, perhaps inevitably gone down in history as the ‘anti-globalisation movement’. There was a lot to object in the ‘anti-globalisation’ misnomer, accused of misplacing the real opposition: not against the shortening of temporal and spatial distances itself, but against the particular kind of neo-liberal globalisation on offer then. But there may be just as much to object in the idea that it was a ‘movement’; more appropriate would be to describe it as a moment when, for the first time, the phenomenon of globalisation itself made it possible for different social forces all over the world to be aware of the simultaneity of their struggles, their overlaps, mutual effects and differences (in terms of immediate targets, tactics, organisational forms, strategic horizons), and communicate in ways that allowed them to both support and learn from each other and converge at common points.
That it was a moment rather than a movement – made up of social forces that were often very different, maybe even contradictory – does not mean, however, that it did not have certain characteristics that allow us to describe it. Despite the fact, for example, that it brought together groups organised as networks and others with more traditional organisational forms, it was nevertheless the case that the way in which the former related to the latter was an instance of the network-form. Besides, even more traditional structures, to the extent that they really belonged to that moment, incorporated some amount of critical revision of past mistakes and failures of the historical left – meaning that there could be some degree of overlap between them and other forces that came into existence then.
In the tenth anniversary of the Seattle protests, the conjuncture of concomitant crises – financial, environmental, of oil resources– would seem to vindicate much that was said and done at the time. Yet it is undeniable that, even if many of the gains of that moment cannot be lost, that moment’s momentum is gone, and many of the social forces that composed it have decomposed themselves. As it passes into the archive of the historical left, it too is open to a critical revision; and there is a growing recognition that much of what was then allowed to become dogma is up for grabs again.
In the short dictionary below, I have gathered some slogans and concepts in wide circulation at the time, and which were either used then, or could with hindsight be now, to capture that moment’s features. The point of doing this is precisely not to argue for the dogma and preach a blind fidelity that cannot be moved by the trials and errors of everyday practice; nor to denounce them as having fallen short of their promises and propose that they be abandoned, ignored as a wrong turn in the left’s historical tradition. It is, instead, a matter of showing, firstly, what their place might be in this tradition: what they inherited, how they transformed it, what they may bequeath; secondly, how they remain open to new interpretations that can benefit from lessons learnt since them, and make them relevant again in the present – and to the task, in the present, of constituting a future.
(So as to stress this goal, the dictionary runs from Z to A.)
‘The personal is political’
cf. First-person politics, ‘Be the change you want to see’
A formula inherited from the critique of the ‘classic’ left undertaken in the 1960s-70s, and by feminists in particular. Historically, it marked the shift from a politics focused on production to one that encompassed reproduction, in a double sense. This means the widening of a focus on the ‘direct process of production’ to include the ‘hidden’, unwaged work of social reproduction mostly carried out by women; but also from a primarily active conception of politics, preoccupied with what is done and said as politics, to one that politicises the passivity implicit in every explicitly political action. In other words, it highlights how it is perfectly possible to be a revolutionary in the streets and a reactionary at home, if one reduces politics to only what takes place in the public sphere, and fails to see every moment of one’s own reproduction as political: it is perfectly possible to reproduce in private deeds what one opposes in public acts.
Now, the ultimate secret of capitalism’s resilience is precisely that it ties our own individual reproduction, and thus social reproduction as a whole, to the reproduction of capital itself. The upshot is that capitalism must be fought (and thought) at once at the level of production and reproduction, or through the ties between the two. This means that ‘the personal is political’ should not be understood as reducing everything to a matter of individual responsibility. (It is liberalism, in fact, that thrives on the idea of individual choice: your success is down to you, you can do your bit by donating to charity, buying green etc. What this serves to obscure is how unequal societies reproduce themselves as unequal exactly by allocating choice in unequal ways, and how everyone ‘doing their bit’ participates in it.)
To turn it into a depoliticised lifestylism that reduces social change to a matter of (often consumption) choice is simply to invert what the formula originally criticised. That the personal is political does not entail that the personal is the political, and therefore replaces it; the point of the original feminist critique was exactly the need to think the two together.
To think that the personal sphere of passive reproduction is also political, that it must be politicised, calls for a politics working at once at the level of creating new practices and circuits of reproduction that, while inevitably within capital, may have enough centrifugal speed in them to point towards something else; and of directly antagonising state, economic powers etc. so as to act, for instance, on the social distribution of choice – and doing so, finally, in such a way that seeks to connect both fronts, by using antagonistic force to safeguard and increase the centrifugal speed of alternative practices (think the public struggle against intellectual property), or by using this centrifugal speed to change the terms of antagonism (think the dissemination of filesharing).
And if the question is one of connecting political and personal, this is sufficient evidence that they are not the same.
‘Small is beautiful’
If the problem is not, and never was, one of choosing between antagonism and building autonomy (or ‘Politics with a capital “P”’ and ‘post-politics’), another formula that needs revising is this one. Opposing the scales in which ‘Politics’ and ‘post-politics’ operate has the healthy advantage of counteracting certain tendencies in historical leftwing thought, not unlike the attentiveness to reproduction described above. It carries a certain sense of nurturing, be it differences (against the temptation to force their subsumption under an identity), ‘invisibilities’ (those practices and groups that do not wish or cannot – as is often the case with migrants, for instance – play the ‘numbers game’ or grab spectacular headlines), potentials. More than that, it proposes two shifts in perspective – or rather, again, a widening of scope. Firstly, it complements the traditional (in the Marxian tradition in particular) focus on totality with an attention to those experiences which, while not necessarily posing themselves as total ruptures, carry in them a transformative potential – perhaps precisely because, while not ‘revolutionary’ in their public acts, they are so in their everyday deeds (i.e., at the level of reproduction). Secondly, it highlights how extensive dimensions cannot be the only criteria with which to judge political potential – it is perfectly possible for a demonstration to be large in numbers and meaningless, as much as it is perfectly possible for an experience to be reduced in size and have a large impact.
The latter point, however, is already to be found in debates that would be seen as ‘old left’: it is not unlike the debate that once opposed trade union (large, but stuck in the cycle of economic demands) and vanguard party; or the one, crucial to the formation of Latin American guerrillas in the wake of the Cuban Revolution, that emphasised how a very small number of committed cadres could ignite the spark of a revolution. What to make of this unexpected concurrence?
What these critiques of an exclusive attention to extensive dimensions have to teach is that, in both cases, in both what they oppose and what they defend, it is not the actual size of something that matters, but what it can do. In other words, the essential thing about ‘small is beautiful’ is not the attachment to being (and staying) small: small groups can often be perfectly sterile, whereas mass movements will always, at least for some time, remain highly fertile and open. Instead, what matters is the commitment to building something that balances the capacity to scale up (and to connect to other things) and that of avoiding ossification, stasis, total exhaustion of its potential. This is why it is important to stress that, rather than being the antithesis of what it criticises, it is its complement. The search for this kind of balance goes well with the notion of a politics combining the building of autonomy with moments of antagonism: while the world of potential is best described by its quantum leaps and invisible transformations, that of antagonism is rather more Newtonian – it requires matching force with equal or greater force, and therefore the capacity to scale and build up. Nothing to do, therefore, with the celebration of self-ghettoisation, sub-culturalism, or a ‘cult of the small’; it is in fact of the nature of contemporary capitalism to deal with this sort of ‘difference for difference’s sake’ by allocating it a value, a brand, and a niche market.
There is nothing magical about this balance; if it calls for a form of practical wisdom or phronesis, it has nothing to do with the search for a virtuous ‘middle road’ that would exist in advance or that can be reduced to any formula or principle. As a matter of fact, working it out demands the kind of choice that justifies the adage according to which ‘all political careers end in failure’: experiences can die before they live out their potential, or can exhaust their potential without ever scaling up, and the determination (rules, structures, programmatic definitions etc.) that scaling up requires will in any case always involve some loss of potential; choosing the course of action to take will always involve considerations of relative losses and gains, which, given enough time, will always retrospectively appear as flawed.
As with Lewis Carrol’s Boojum, you only know it is not a Snark when it is too late; and yet it is the promise of one day finding a Snark that keeps you going.
Cf. ‘The personal is political’, ‘Another world is possible’
Another theme inherited from the 1960s-70s is the ‘critique of representation’. It is often the case with ideas that garner widespread support that they do so by being sufficiently underdetermined for almost anyone to agree with them; the polysemy of ‘representation’ is what allows it here. Staying within the political implications only: at its most specific, it could refer to the critique of parliamentary politics and liberal democracy; more generally, it refers to any political force (such as parties and trade unions) that manifests itself as the organ by which a collective subject speaks its will (‘we the workers’, ‘we women’, ‘we the people’); and, at its most general, any attempt at ‘speaking on behalf of others’.
Yet it is perfectly possible to objectively ‘speak on behalf of others’ against one’s best wishes; in fact, given that access to a ‘voice’ is unequally distributed, it is inevitable. This is something that can be gleaned from the very way in which the label ‘anti-globalisation movement’ is used by the media or some theorists, sympathetic or otherwise – where a moment taking place around the world is turned into a movement by being reduced to its most visible expression in the global North (counter-summit protests), allowing in turn a very diverse composition of social groups, struggles and political orientations to be reduced to a certain characteristic, mostly European, profile. (Likewise, the way in which some books were elevated to the status of ‘official theory’ of the movement at the expense of theory been produced from within movements themselves.)
Nominally subscribing to a ‘first-person politics’ is no safeguard: the risk, in fact, is that not participating in a representative structure, not intending one’s acts as representing others, not purporting to place demands and undertake negotiations in the name of anyone often goes a long way in obscuring the ways in which one can still speak on someone else’s behalf. (The same, in fact, goes for the critique of the vanguard: that small direct action groups act in their own name, out of a shared feeling of concern or outrage, does not always and automatically exempt them from the same vanguardism or substitutionalism of, e.g., 1960s-1970s armed groups.)
To speak in the first person, therefore, should mean neither free, unilateral individual expression, nor the hurried dismissal of representation that flattens all differences (on the unspoken assumption that ‘we are all the same now’ because ‘everyone is like me’). It requires attentiveness to the conditions from which one speaks, and how these are themselves socially determined: again, a twist that searches for the passivity that silently inhabits one’s actions, the conditioned in supposedly unconditioned spontaneity. This search is by definition inexhaustible, as the (active) identification of conditions is itself distorted by (passive) conditions and so forth. Two extremes define the field in which it takes place: if the first is obliviousness to conditions, the other is the paralysis – fear of acting – arising from the incapacity to exhaust the conditions of one’s action, and the bad conscience-ridden hankering for an authentic subject who could speak without conditions (the ‘real worker’, the ‘real subaltern’, the ‘real oppressed’) – which is all the more authentic because, by definition, it cannot speak at all (that is, it cannot speak without being in some way mediated).
Let us stay with the case of summit-protest cycle. It would not be difficult to find elements of both poles in it; and their presence could go some length in explaining why – in the face of a security climate reconfigured by the ‘war on terror’ – there was a tendency in the global North to reterritorialise those expressions of a more diffuse, ‘global’ antagonism into issues that had a direct bearing on the social base involved in them. This kind of reterritorialisation – while salutary if it translates into more consistent, sustained interventions – can also imply a simple reversal of the first risk: from the impossibility of wishing representation away, one passes into blindness to (or worse, actively ignores) how the effects of what is fought for impact on others’ struggles and lives. As a consequence, gone is the perspective that allows the identification of tactical alliances, commonalities, overlaps, and the production of convergences – sometimes replaced by tactical opportunism and the same lip-service-paying practices criticised in parliamentary politics.
In relation to the poles that determine the anxious field of the search for conditions, one could say: politics is only possible in the middle. To politicise one’s surroundings is always to acknowledge the relative difference of one’s own position – but to do it politically, without guilt or cynicism. (A good lesson from the movements for migrants’ rights: while one such movement where migrants are not involved is obviously a failure, there are important roles to be played by non-migrants; to stick to a single example, given migrants find themselves exposed by the lack of legal status, riskier actions often have to be carried out by regular migrants and non-migrants.)
In relation to the risk of first-person politics and its reversal, one could say: politics is only possible in a milieu. To start from the first person does not mean staying there. It means starting from one’s position in the circuits that reproduce inequality, politicising the relations that are implicated in that position, and acting to transform them by working together with those who are also implicated in them in some capacity `and at different points of their chains. It means making and sustaining concrete transversal relations that reinforce each other and change with one another. It means working from one’s own life to the extent that it is and can be shared, so as to build territories of consistency – common grounds, relationships of trust and commitment nurtured over time; something akin to what the tradition of Liberation Theology and Participatory Action Research called vivencia: a shared lived experience.
Cf. ‘Small is beautiful’, ‘Another world is possible’
Although the ‘respect for difference’ theme is another legacy of the ‘new social movements’ of the 1960s-1970s, the moment that began in the mid-1990s added an important twist to it. From the mid-1970s on, and during the 1980s in particular, it had progressively come to stand for fragmentation and lack of communication (resulting in various movements being content to settle for local reforms ensuring improved access to certain opportunities, mostly as mediated by the market). Around the turn of the century, phenomena like Days of Global Action and the World Social Forum seemed to suggest that it was not only possible to make a wide spectrum of social forces converge in time and space around little more than loose agreements on protocols for interaction – it could be done on a much larger scale than before; on a much larger (because global) scale than any single political force had ever managed to rally; and, at a time .
For a few years, it seemed that the tactical innovation of ‘swarming’ had also managed to solve the strategic problem of how to combine diversity and the capacity to act in a unified way. The problem, however, soon appeared: swarming requires singularising a target; in the absence of one that is externally given (such as a summit that, for a few pre-determined days, can physically stand in for a common enemy), the question just opens up again: how can a very diverse constellation of social forces determine one?
There are two separate problems here. One concerns the actual, practical possibilities for consultation, debate and decision-making (channels of communication, structures of representation, protocols); evidently, the greater the scale, the greater the difficulty. The other, scale-independent and constitutive, is this: if every determination is a closure, every statement like ‘this is where we stand’, ‘this is what we have to do now’ narrows the terms of debate, and therefore (at least in principle) excludes people who think differently.
Two organising principles were supposed to deal with it: consensus decision-making and diversity of tactics. There are three problems with the former: firstly, it assumes that there are no differences that cannot be cancelled in some way (which is evidently not always the case); and, when it comes to producing decisions within a relatively small window of opportunity, it can be both too time-consuming, and result in solutions that are too diluted (or convoluted) to serve the purpose of seizing the moment. As for the latter, while effective in a swarming situation, it is of little use in defining objectives.
Yet it is from the contradictions between these two principles that something can be learnt. Between the two, the latter obviously always wins: it is always possible not to produce any consensus (or conclusion) through an automatic application of the latter, simply ‘agreeing to disagree’ and allowing each one their own initiative. (The lack of significant tactical innovations after swarming and Days of Global Action probably indicates that, once a solution around which everyone could ‘agree to disagree’ was found, it was easier to return to it than to risk fragile ‘unities’ creating anything else.) The contradiction here is between, on the one hand, the ‘consensus’ notion of difference as something to be worked through in the production of new, partial syntheses; and, on the other, the notion of difference as a given to be automatically respected, ultimately consigning political debate as such to smaller affinity groups only, and banning it from larger assemblies.
At the same time, the original Days of Global Action resulted from initiatives taken by small groups or coalitions who, without having sought prior consensus, nevertheless received a much broader (and more diverse) response than they could expect. The other contradiction, then, is that consensus can be produced, not only in the absence of any procedure, but as the post facto legitimation of a timely isolated initiative.
What lessons can be drawn here? First, not to treat difference as an absolute given. To fetishise diversity and constrain debate because ‘difference must be left alone’ is not only counter-productive (as it squanders good opportunities for both clarifying and transforming positions): it reduces difference to the status of essence and individual property. At the same time, the negotiation of differences is not a matter that can be solved by procedure alone. We return to the concept of vivencia: sustained, shared lived experience creates a common ground of negotiation, transformation and mutual commitment often stronger than any explicit discussion. This evidently imposes limits of scale; a vivencia is always local, however many individuals or groups are part of it. It nonetheless proposes a different model in which to think the construction of consensus and the striking of balances between unity and diversity: the ongoing process, rather than the assembly.
Alongside the ‘consensus’ notion that all differences can be cancelled, the cycle of the turn of the century – perhaps out of a fascination with the uniqueness of its global dimension, and the material conditions that to a large extent enabled it – seemed to treat connection as absolute value. But what if that is not the case? Connection is important to the extent that it multiplies the capacity to act of each individual group or movement; but neither is every connection possible, nor every consensus desirable – drawing lines at times is not only inevitable, but necessary. Does treating connection as absolute not entail a model of ideal communication – which, in displacing differences from social to discursive relations, brackets the fact that some antagonisms may not be resolved through communication? That may be the second lesson.
The third is suggested by events such as the Spain-wide demonstrations after the Madrid bombs in 2004, the banlieue uprisings in France, and the recent protests in Iran: the combination of increased access to communication technology and the spread of user-led platforms create the potential for a diffuse vanguardism that can ignite large-scale effects without any sort of decision-making procedure. Do these suffer from the same limit of the swarm in general – having their resonance depend on the fact that they remain negatively defined (against x)? The recent experience of the housing campaigns in Spain points to the possibility of developing both process and a positive programme after the fact.
Ultimately, the main lesson is that, again, political practice will always be a matter of striking balances between unity and diversity, openness and closure; and what was said above about scale/potential choices is just as valid here.
‘Be the change you want to see’
cf. ‘The personal is political’’, First-person politics
There’s always a risk that ‘prefigurative politics’ be treated as some kind of karma for laymen: ‘do unto the world as you wish the world to do’, as if it were simply a matter of producing the adequate change and waiting for the world to adapt. What this erases, however, is the antagonistic element: to open up a space for ‘autonomous’ reproduction always automatically sets up a border that separates inside and outside, which immediately entails that relations established with the outside cannot be of the same order of those on the inside. (To take an example from solidarity economy: a network of enterprises will ultimately relate to other actors in the market in the mode of competition, rather than solidarity.) Moreover, opening the space and maintaining its borders often requires, metaphorically as well as literally, actively wrenching it and protecting it from something else: state, market etc. To stay with the solidarity economy experiences of countries like Argentina, the ‘liberation’ of enterprises often requires factory occupations, protracted legal and political battles, …; but the classic example would be how a pre-condition for the Zapatistas’ novel experiences in ‘good government’ was the creation and securing of a territory by military means.
The background problem with this erasure is that the prefigurative is posed in non-relation to everything else. This absolute self-reference is what enables the individualisation of social responsibility (‘I do my bit; if other people don’t, it’s their fault’) and an elimination of all strategy: if the space where change is prefigured does not share anything else’s temporality, the question of how it relates to its ‘outside’ over time, and what form this relation should take (‘colonisation’ of one by the other? exodus? struggle for hegemony? non-relation pure and simple?), is null and void.
Like ‘the personal is political’, prefigurative politics is about bringing conditions of reproduction into politics, or turning passivity into a space for political action. But the conditions of one’s own reproduction open onto the circuits of social reproduction as a whole. The question, therefore, is not whether it is possible to ‘live differently’ in small communities, or for short periods at a time. ‘Be the change you want to see’ is then not a mock-religious search for coherence, but an active effort to strengthen circuits of reproduction in autonomy from capital.
The question is whether it is possible to live differently in a large scale and for the whole of the time; it is about actively experimenting with the possibilities of decoupling social reproduction from the reproduction of capital; and what it takes to do so.
‘Another world is possible’
What is most unique in the moment begun in the mid-1990s? Let us consider this hypothesis: it was the first cycle of struggles that was global as such. That is, not only taking place simultaneously in various parts of the globe (those of the 1840s, 1920s-1930s and 1960s-1970s could claim precedence), but posing its global dimension as its defining feature. The material element determining this difference was, of course, capitalist globalisation itself, which created and strengthened structures and flows of communication, movement of people and goods to such a scale that the potential for connections between different local realities both grew exponentially and became more accessible. This expanded potential for exchange and production of commonality resulted in a much enhanced awareness of the different impacts of neo-liberal globalisation, their interconnectedness, the forms taken by resistance to them, and the ways in which the latter could be placed in relation; this, in turn, enabled concrete exchanges and mutual support among different local experiences; which, finally, conjured a potential: that of momentarily focusing this localised political activity into moments of shared relevance, whether at a global (such as the mobilisations against the WTO or against the war) or more localised level.
These three factors – awareness, concrete exchanges, and potential for convergence – constitute that cycle’s global dimension, and are probably the only sense in which it is possible to speak (as one did then) of a global movement of movements. The ‘internationalism’ produced then is different to that of previous generations to the extent that its referent is a shared belonging to an interconnected, interdependent world, rather than an aggregate of national states to be revolutionised one by one. It is been argued that the famous ‘Earth Rising’ picture of 1969 may have had a direct effect on the development of environmentalism in the following decades; and indeed there is enormous power in the idea that ‘there is only one world’: once a physical limit is put to the capacity to universalise, the rational operation of seeing one’s lot as necessarily tangled with others’ is given concrete shape. That this ‘concrete universalism’ was coupled with the increase in the capacity to have exchanges with ‘concrete others’ from all over the globe – such were the novelties of this ‘globalism’. From it results an understanding of every actual struggle as neither exclusively local nor global: all struggles communicate on different levels, while none can subsume all others; no partial, ‘local’ solutions can stand in isolation, and there is no ‘global’ solution unless one understood as a certain possible configuration of local ones.
Soon, however, one problem became obvious: that it is impossible to inhabit this global dimension as such. Firstly, due to a difficulty already encountered above: can large-scale convergences give themselves their own objectives in positive rather than negative ways? Secondly, because such convergences do not a movement make: however crucial it may be to maintain open the potential to focus activity on singular times and places, such potential exists only as a consequence of capacity built at the local level, not as its substitute; it is only to the extent that there are active local struggles that they communicate at a global level. Thirdly, because privileging convergences saps resources from local capacity-building, when the point should be precisely that the former reinforce the latter. If they do not, this ultimately means that antagonism, rather than being the necessary other half of building autonomy, replaces it; and in doing so, it loses the grounds on which it can find support. In other words, such convergences, if ends in themselves rather than strategic tools, stay at a purely representative level: of expressing a dissent that has no way of enforcing itself. (Think of what has become of Mayday in most countries.)
This kind of dissent, of course, has some effectiveness in a parliamentary democracy, provided it corresponds to a large enough constituency to constitute a relevant electoral variable. This highlights another reason why the global is uninhabitable, at least for politics’ antagonistic aspect: in itself, it allows no space for strength to be shown or demands to be placed, since there is no-one to directly address. Arguably the greatest victory of the ‘global movement’, the ‘derailing’ of the original WTO project shows it: from Seattle, when a debate until then happening far from public scrutiny was exposed and opposed by mass demonstrations; to the progressive weakening of its original fait accompli status, as some governments took a harder negotiating stance; to the Cancun ministerial summit, where these governments were the ones to prevent a deal from happening.
With the wane of the ‘global’ moment and the rise of Latin America’s ‘pink tide’, some have hurried to conclude that the cycle of movements would have ended, and a new one – where it would be a matter of consolidating the positions gained – begun. This argument (whose relevance is rather limited to Latin America), in its more open versions at least, has two elements of continuity with the global moment. The first is that, while stressing a ‘return’ of national sovereignty, it looks at the role the latter can have in constituting new forms of global interconnection beyond those of neoliberal globalisation. The second consists in recognising the constitutive relation between movements and institutions; this dynamic, however, ends up appearing more as a succession of static moments than a permanent, open tension. In doing so, an unnecessary (and unproductive) choice is forced: either to accept that the initiative has passed to the side of the existing governments, or to offer the flank to reaction.
This takes us to one final maxim, of great currency during the global moment, so far conspicuously absent from this dictionary. Is forcing a choice between ‘taking’ and ‘not taking power’ as a way of ‘changing the world’ not simply the reversal of the false option above? There is ample historical evidence that the capture of the national state, in and of itself, does not amount to ‘changing the world’. Acknowledging such a – presumably incontrovertible – fact does not necessarily entail losing all capacity to distinguish between ‘worse’ and ‘better’ governments, or to take sides when necessary. It means no more than being aware that no government will ever be ‘our’ government, in the sense that it would deliver all that is desired or required; it means recognising the limits of what the state can deliver, yet knowing that it will always be necessary to push beyond them. Governments will be ‘better’ or ‘worse’ to the extent that they are more or less permeable to the autonomous intervention of movements, that more or less space can be created in them to increase these movements’ capacity to act. If there is a decision to stay on the side of movements here, then, it is one that chooses the side from which, the direction in which to establish the relation, rather than wishing it into inexistence; and sees developing the capacity to choose what mediators to have, what mediation to accept, and when, as reaching farther than mere refusal.