Autonomy: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

You may resist the invasion of an army, but you cannot stop an idea whose time has come.

~ Victor Hugo

EDITOR’S NOTE: A revised and properly referenced version of this essay is now available in PDF format (more pleasant to read) on Academia.edu. We will keep the original version online on ROAR, but we strongly advise you to read the updated PDF version!

As the ongoing uprising in Turkey and the mass protests in Bosnia, Bulgaria and Brazil confirm, the wave of struggles that kicked off with the Arab revolutions of 2011 is still in full swing. However, it is also clear that, two years hence, the “dangerous dreams” of the Arab revolutionaries, Europe’s indignados and America’s occupiers largely remain unfulfilled. In Europe, the austerity mantra is still being uncritically praised and dutifully imposed by governments of the left and the right. In Egypt, Islamist forces have successfully managed to hijack the revolution by taking state power and suppressing its epochal promise of radical emancipation. In the United States, meanwhile, the bodies that once assembled on Wall Street seem to have dissipated back into their previous state of social atomization.

In the present conjuncture, an old but important question arises — both for the movements that kicked off in 2011 and for the ones currently underway in Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere: what is to be done? According to some, including prominent leftist thinkers like Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, the spontaneous and autonomous character of the new revolutions poses a number of risks. Most importantly, these critics argue, the lack of centralized leadership and the fetishism of horizontality that define these movements risk condemning them to an ephemeral existence with limited influence on concrete political outcomes. Without the necessary structuring leadership of what Badiou and Žižek call the Master – presumably in the form of a radical party – the protests are bound to resemble nothing more than flash mobs, marked by temporary explosions of carnivalesque contestation that ultimately do little to undermine the deeper power relations that constitute capitalist society. In the most cynical of these interpretations, the new revolutions could even end up reinforcing capitalism.

Today’s Movements: Advancing Socialism Without the Politics? 

In an article for Levantoday, David De Bruijn echoes some of these criticisms, even if he is arguing more from a realist point of view than a Marxist-Leninist one as such. First, he correctly argues that the Tahrir uprising of 2011 was actually much more closely connected to the anti-austerity protests in Syntagma than most observers at the time were willing to recognize. But, after this basic observation, David moves on to conclude that perhaps the sources of similarity between these movements — which Leonidas Oikonomakis and I consider to be part of the same movement family, which we refer to as the Real Democracy Movement — are also precisely their main weakness. In fact, the ongoing wave of ‘occupy’ protests, including the anti-austerity protests in Europe and the Taksim uprising, may signify the Rebirth of History, but they ultimately do so by proposing the return of socialism without the politics:

Today’s protestors do not affiliate themselves with parties or programs; they do not enter the political arena to obtain particular political goals, or even to actually alter the system entirely. The common refrain is that politics ‘are all hopeless anyway’. As such, today’s protesters want socialism in the abstract: ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ like equality, fairness and non-materialist modes of existence, but not any particular potentially feasible practice embodying these values.

It is a critique that the Occupy movement is very familiar with, of course. First, the mainstream media and political establishment chastised the protesters for failing to articulate any clear demands; then the institutional left joined in, criticizing grassroots activists for refusing to organize themselves into a party and to aim for state power. It is a similar line of critique as the one that has been leveled at the autonomous Zapatista rebellion in Mexico, the spontaneous popular uprising in Argentina and the leaderless alter-globalization movement in Europe and the United States, all of which helped to animate the world’s most important anti-capitalist struggles around the turn of the century. In fact, it is a critique that goes back much further than this, extending from Marx’ thundering polemics against the anarchism of Proudhon and Bakunin to Lenin’s scathing critique of Rosa Luxemburg’s concept of revolutionary spontaneity; and from the Stalinist crackdown on the anarchist militias of revolutionary Catalonia to the contemporary Marxist critique of the events of May ’68.

It is quite interesting to note, in this respect, that there is a long-standing and somewhat curious coalition between the theorists of the institutional left — represented in this case by radical thinkers like Slavoj Žižek — on the one hand; and the liberal political establishment in democratic capitalist society on the other. Both have consistently criticized the Real Democracy Movement for its refusal to respect the organizational exigencies of party politics; both argue that, to be taken seriously, the activists should cast aside their revolutionary illusions and accept the basic rules of the game. Without representation in parliament, they argue, no one will listen to them. If only the protesters would get their hands dirty and do some politics, these two strange bedfellows seem to agree, we can at least start a conversation.

The Divorce of Power from Politics

But of course that is precisely what the activists do not want. They do not want to engage in a dialogue with the political establishment because they consider the entire system upon which it rests to be fundamentally undemocratic. Moreover, the refusal to engage in the representative politics of capitalist democracy is by no means limited to moral considerations: it is not simply a “soft” and “fluffly” rejection of politics in favor of values. In fact, most of the organizers behind the grassroots movements of the past two years recognize that moving through traditional party structures and state institutions is likely to do their movement more harm than good. This is ultimately a strategic consideration as much as it is a moral or ideological one. Look no further than Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, to see what happens to revolutionaries — in this case a former member of various Marxist guerrilla groups during Brazil’s military dictatorship — when they take state power. Or look at the Papandreou dynasty in Greece. Or the Miliband family in the United Kingdom. The examples are endless.

Here, we need to make an important distinction that radically alters the basis of our analysis about relevant forms of revolutionary organization under conditions of global capitalism. It is commonplace to claim that politics is ultimately about power. When politics is seen in this way, the refusal of today’s movements to get bogged down in representative politics is indicative of a failure to recognize the social reality of extant power relations and skewed power structures. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it conflates two concepts that are closely connected but nevertheless crucially distinct. In a word, we need to take our political economy seriously and distinguish politics from power. Zygmunt Bauman notes that politics is about deciding what is to be done, while power is about the ability to actually do it. In that respect, the nation state and representative democracy are full of politics but devoid of power.

In the analysis of structural power that forms the theoretical backbone of my PhD research and my own social activism, the nation state is no longer a valid or effective basis for transformative political action (for more on this, check my latest conference paper for a take on how the structural power of financial capital has transformed the nature of political activism in the European debt crisis). The worldwide crisis of representation is precisely an outcome of the realization among disaffected voters that elected representatives have ceased to represent their interests, and that this is a problem not of the representatives themselves but of the system of representation as such. What people everywhere are starting to recognize is that voting is pointless if elected representatives do not have the power — or the collective will — to put into practice the promises they make in the lead-up to the elections. What people are starting to realize, in other words, is that power has been divorced from politics, leaving the politics behind in a hopelessly vacuous rhetorical universe.

So rather than ignoring the question of power, the Real Democracy Movement actually exposes it for what it really is: it reveals the emperor of democratic capitalism to be naked. As Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN put in, “in the cabaret of globalization, the state shows itself as a table dancer that strips off everything until it is left with only the minimum indispensable garments: the repressive force.” All around us, we can see the meaningless garments of representative democracy lying abandoned on the ground — the parliaments, the voting booths, the campaign posters — but the emperor who used to wear them has long since migrated elsewhere. From time to time, the state still dresses itself up in the destructive boredom of “free and fair” elections, but the imperial power that once allowed it to translate their outcome into meaningful action has all but evaporated into a de-territorial realm of diffuse capitalist sovereignty. This is the essence of politics without power, and the movements of 2011 are merely the latest and most concerted attempt on the part of the general population to point this out.

From Betrayal to Deception: The Left Turns Right

Hence the frustration with political parties. Hence the autonomous forms of self-organization. Indeed, it seems that today the only substantive domain of politics where the state still has some power to affect a change in outcomes is the cultural politics of identity: it may no longer be able to stem flows of money across borders, but at least the state can still to some extent stop the flow of human beings — and so it does, with brutal effect, cracking down on refugees and migrants as if its life depended on it. When it comes to the economy, however, the state is structurally constrained by the ability of bankers and businessmen to move their investments around as they please: stuffing away trillions of dollars worth in profits in remote tax havens while moving investments to whoever offers the easiest regulation and greatest returns. Politicians, meanwhile, are structurally dependent on these private investors to maintain adequate growth and employment levels, otherwise they simply risk being ousted from office in the next elections. As a result, all politicians ultimately have to cater to business interests — if they do not, the market will just discipline them through divestment.

People may therefore have the right to vote, but what is the point in voting if all you get to decide upon is who will implement the policies that favor big business anyway? Populists like Beppe Grillo in Italy may scream “they’re all crooks, kick them all out!”, but what we are really seeing is not corrupt politicians betraying their voters, or the left betraying the workers, but capital gradually expanding its structural power. As the dual processes of globalization and financialization continue apace, elected politicians — both corrupt and honest ones — are simply being reduced to managers: they just take care of the state apparatus while the bankers and businessmen move their money around. This is not a problem of “betrayal”. Even if liberal voters may feel betrayed by Obama’s swing to the right, this is not just about power corrupting people (it is also about that, but not alone). Similarly, it is not just that the Workers’ Party betrayed workers in Brazil, or PASOK betrayed voters in Greece. Cornelius Castoriadis, the Greek philosopher of autonomy, was prescient when he wrote in 1955 that left-wing parties have never truly represented working people:

[S]aying that they ‘are betraying us’ makes no sense. If, in order to sell his junk, a merchant tells me some load of crap and tries to persuade me that it is in my interest to buy it, I can say that he is trying to deceive me but not that he is betraying me. Likewise, the Socialist or Stalinist party, in trying to persuade the proletariat that it represents its interests, is trying to deceive it but is not betraying it; they betrayed it once and for all a long time ago, and since then they are not traitors to the working class but faithful and consistent servants of other interests.

The Revolution’s Gradual Retreat into Reformism

It is therefore not that today’s movements are refusing to confront the difficult concept of power, but precisely the opposite. More and more people around the world are beginning to recognize that the democratic capitalist state plays a critical role in stabilizing the diffuse global system of capitalist power relations, and that the parties of the left in turn play a critical role in stabilizing the authority and legitimacy of the capitalist state. As John Holloway put it in a recent ROAR interview, “one thing that’s become clear in the crisis to more and more people is the distance of the state from society, and the degree to which the state is integrated into the movement of money, so that the state even loses the appearance of being pulled in two directions.” Whereas the temporary fixes of Keynesian demand management in the post-war years and cheap credit in the last three decades may have led voters to believe that the state did care about ordinary people, such illusions have all but disappeared in the present conjuncture of widespread capitalist crisis: not just in the eurozone but everywhere.

The position of the institutional left in this respect is extremely self-defeating. On the one hand, most state-oriented radicals, revolutionary socialists and communists would agree with the analysis that the power of capital has grown exponentially under neoliberalism and that the state is becoming increasingly submissive to the dictatorship of the markets. As Žižek himself puts it, the left’s reactionary defense of the welfare state is ultimately a hopeless endeavor: “the utopia [of today's left] is not a radical change of the system, but the idea that one can maintain a welfare state within the system.” In fact, he even argues that “if we remain within the confines of the global capitalist system, then measures to wring further sums from workers, students and pensioners are, effectively, necessary.” Clearly such views are difficult to square with Žižek’s support for SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece, and the latter’s defense of the welfare state. One day, Žižek’s own theoretical reflections on the Greek debt crisis force him to conclude that the prospects for leftist regimes in general are “‘objectively’ hopeless”; the next day he finds himself praising SYRIZA for its “courage to take over [and] banish the left’s fear of taking power.”

The best that leftists can hope for in such an “objectively hopeless” situation is for some modest reform: an Argentina-style debt default, the re-nationalization of some public utilities or perhaps a bank, maybe some family allowances or subsidies to help uplift the poor or bring education to the excluded; not much more. Žižek even ends up enthusiastically praising Obama’s disastrous healthcare reforms, not realizing that they basically stripped away hundreds of billions of dollars from hospitals and donated them as profits to Big Pharma and Wall Street insurance companies. Whatever happened to the good old revolutionary idea of socialism as the “social ownership of the means of production and co-operative management of the economy”? It is now clear that all state-oriented forms of revolutionary theory and practice have long since retreated into a defeatist reformism. This is not simply a sectarian jab at the institutional left: the leading radicals themselves recognize it. Speaking at the Subversive Festival in Zagreb this year, Richard Seymour — author of the blog Lenin’s Tombadmitted that “in practical terms we are all reformists now.” As a result, radical thinkers generally end up supporting political parties whose final policies will be all but radical. In fact, with enough time spent in power, their principal function inevitably becomes the stabilization of the liberal democratic state that anchors the social relations of the global capitalist order. In the process, the cycle of deception that Castoriadis identified – really a cycle of collective self-delusion — continues unabated.

While Slavoj Žižek expresses his unconditional support for a young and charismatic comrade like Alexis Tsipras — the leader of SYRIZA upon whom all radical hopes are now pinned — the latter actually goes to visit Wolfgang Schäuble in Berlin to tell the German Finance Minister that he need not fear a Greek euro exit, before embarking on a charm offensive in the United States to assure the IMF and private bankers of the same, even telling an audience of businessmen, US officials and policy wonks at the Brookings Institution that “I hope to convince you that I’m not as dangerous as some are trying to say.” Apparently the disciplinary power of markets is so great that it even exerts its influence on opposition parties. “Is there anything to fear of the left wing in Greece?” the leader of the Coalition of the Radical Left asked his audience of liberals rhetorically. “In what way are we radical?” By now, the answer should be clear to everyone: in name only.

The End of Domination and the Unleashing of Autonomy

So what is to be done? Rather than reproducing the capitalist state through our continued participation within it, we should destroy it. On a theoretical level, the institutional left would agree with us on this lofty abstract goal. But on a practical level they contradict themselves by continuously trying to seize it, be it through revolutionary or through electoral means — only to be repelled time and again in their objectives of establishing socialism by the exigencies of the market place: from Morales’ Movement for Socialism embracing “Andean-Amazonian capitalism” and cracking down on grassroots movements to expedite large-scale resource extraction in Bol

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