Žižek’s Gamble, and Ours

1

His

I have little patience for Žižek. To some he might be a critical provocateur, but he is really more of a philosophy-themed stand-up comic (whose verborrhea overflows into the writing of too many books). It is to be expected that the mainstream press, when they pick up on him, write silly things. It is also to be expected that more learned readers will respond with subtler interpretations. None of this really matters to most anarchists; it certainly matters very little to me. But, considering a recent piece of his and its repercussions, I was afforded an insight, a new way to say what some of us already know…

chp_crowd

In a 2012 article in The Los Angeles Review of Books Adam Kotsko described Žižek’s interventions (at least the more visible ones such as the one I am about to discuss) as strategic overidentifications:

One of Žižek’s primary tactics for shifting the frame of reference is overidentification. This strategy grows out of his experience under the Communist regime in Yugoslavia. Observing his country’s political life, Žižek came to a paradoxical realization: the fact that no one “really” bought into the official socialist ideology was not an obstacle for the rulers — cynical distance was part of their strategy for maintaining control. In this situation, Žižek proposed, the best way to resist was to take the ruling ideology at its word, naïvely demanding that the leaders fulfill the promise of their ideals.

Kotsko recently invoked this overidentification strategy as a counter to the claim that Žižek is a fascist. This claim has surely surfaced many times (along with more predictable ones such as Stalinist, crypto-conservative, etc.), but it did so most recently in connection with a recent piece in The New Statesman (which Wikipedia describes as a center-left publication) about Margaret Thatcher. In the article, Žižek claims that the Left needs a Thatcher. That is, a Master:

…after the specialists (economic and military analysts, psychologists, meteorologists) propose their analysis, somebody must assume the simple and for that very reason most difficult act of transposing this complex multitude into a simple “Yes” or “No”. We shall attack, we continue to wait… This gesture, which can never be fully grounded in reasons, is that of a Master. It is for the experts to present the situation in its complexity, and it is for the Master to simplify it into a point of decision. The Master is needed especially in situations of deep crisis. The function of a Master is to enact an authentic division – a division between those who want to drag on within the old parameters and those who are aware of the necessary change. Such a division, not the opportunistic compromises, is the only path to true unity.

I won’t go into the argument as to why Thatcher was a great leader, a Master. I imagine it concerns you as little as it concerns me. But I will cite Žižek one more time and at some length, here concerning democracy and decision-making. Žižek has been discussing leftist objections to economic policies under Thatcher. He then adds:

The other aspect of Thatcher’s legacy targeted by her leftist critics was her “authoritarian” form of leadership, her lack of the sense for democratic coordination. Here, however, things are more complex than it may appear. The ongoing popular protests around Europe converge in a series of demands which, in their very spontaneity and obviousness, form a kind of “epistemological obstacle” to the proper confrontation with the ongoing crisis of our political system. These effectively read as a popularised version of Deleuzian politics: people know what they want, they are able to discover and formulate this, but only through their own continuous engagement and activity. So we need active participatory democracy, not just representative democracy with its electoral ritual which every four years interrupts the voters’ passivity; we need the self-organisation of the multitude, not a centralised Leninist Party with the Leader, et cetera. It is this myth of non-representative direct self-organisation which is the last trap, the deepest illusion that should fall, that is most difficult to renounce. Yes, there are in every revolutionary process ecstatic moments of group solidarity when thousands, hundreds of thousands, together occupy a public place, like on Tahrir square two years ago. Yes, there are moments of intense collective participation where local communities debate and decide, when people live in a kind of permanent emergency state, taking things into their own hands, with no Leader guiding them. But such states don’t last, and “tiredness” is here not a simple psychological fact, it is a category of social ontology. The large majority – me included – wants to be passive and rely on an efficient state apparatus to guarantee the smooth running of the entire social edifice, so that I can pursue my work in peace.

Obviously anarchists will object to what I have just cited. But we will do so in more than one way. Leftist, pro-democracy, pro-consensus anarchists will simply rehearse their arguments in favor of direct democracy and whatever our version is of “the self-organization of the multitude” (some may agree with Hardt and Negri enough not to require their own version). Those of us who are not leftists and do not fight for democracy, however, will have a different objection, and have perhaps more to gain than the leftists when we engage with an argument such as the one presented here by Žižek.

The self-appointed activist leaders of the Left gesture towards consensus and collectivities, but in more or less public meetings they decide just as the military master decides in Žižek’s example (which comes from Winston Churchill). On the other hand, though I hardly agree that “people know what they want, they are able to discover and formulate this,” the truly damaging effects of ignorance and self-deception happen when they are integrated into massive political units. This is why it is so vital for us to sever our anarchy from the political project of democracy. And we accept the risk of incoherence in the eyes of many when we express ourselves along these lines. Consider the apparent contradiction in our response to a view such as Žižek’s: with the leftists, we are against the Master, against her authority. But, though we are sometimes very excited about group solidarity, sometimes we are incredibly suspicious of it. Then we are with Žižek against “the myth of non-representative self-organization,”if that is identified with a generic faith in the virtues of the Mass, grassroots populism, or democracy.

But even in this partial agreement, are we really with Žižek? It is easy enough to call Žižek a fascist given the tone of his call for strong leadership and true unity. But it is also simplistic, and Kotsko is probably right: any piece as mainstream as this one is more about the critique it makes possible than the apparent position it defends. In any case, that is Žižek’s gamble. Or if not, it is at least his job, which, as he writes, he wants to pursue in peace.

Given that Žižek’s strategy combines the negativity of critique with a psychological tactic, it might also be called propaganda. I don’t write that to dismiss it, but to be clear. And I also know that I can only be clear in this way here because I have some sense of who will read me, and am addressing myself to them. I know I am not with Žižek because he does not speak for me, and there is nothing I would publish in The New Statesman instead… our tactic has to be different.

2

Ours

What is the anarchist gamble? If Žižek’s tactic is overidentification, ours is obviously non-identification. If the specific risk that Žižek runs is that his joking Stalinism, fascistic posturing, etc. becomes more than a routine, then our specific risk is that we do not differentiate our positions and practices sufficiently from what Kotsko calls “cynical distance.” Our position might be lost in irrelevance or incommunicability—even incoherence.

I can describe the difference we need to communicate easily enough. Reading through Žižek’s article, it is expected and transparent that what is under discussion are forms of government. Shall the government be strong and authoritarian?  Shall it be participatory and democratic? What is the right form, and what is the right path to that form? And so on. Žižek aptly suggests, at the end of the last bit I quoted, that most people want to be left in peace (he includes himself to avoid accusations of elitism). Indeed. But why call this passivity? Why determine that the fatigue most feel after too much participation in deliberation and meetings is a justification for the authority of a government that works on its own? The true anarchist response, it seems to me, is that such fatigue is a healthy reaction to meetings and expected or required participation of any sort. For someone who continues to assume the necessity of government, the experience of such fatigue points either to the need to offload decision-making onto a Decider, or to the need for More Hard Work, more self-sacrifice, and so on. But for those of us detached from such a necessity, fatigue is one of many symptoms indicating that we should be considering our lives on other terms. To whatever degree we can act on this idea and communicate it, we are differentiating ourselves from “cynical distance” without falling into the mania for activism and participation that always eventually reintegrates us into governmental forms.

From there, I can move to describe the anarchist position that emerges in response to Žižek as follows. First, the Right-Left continuum as it is usually discussed:

—Right: authoritarian traditions
—Left: participatory/popular traditions
Then, on a perpendicular axis, another continuum, from government to non-government: On one extreme we get a kind of absolute politics:
—State communism, fascism, whatever Žižek seems to want.
On the other extreme, we get anti-politics:
—Non-government: communism, anarchy.

Interestingly, the absolute politics extreme might be described as containing the most exaggerated hybrids of the Left and Right traditions. It would be the monstrous composite of the historical trajectories of the political tradition as such. The anti-political position begins when the historical content of the Left as well as the Right is abandoned. This is true in the realm of ideas as well as the realm of action.

How do we communicate our abandonment, our abandon? Let me repeat Žižek: “The ongoing popular protests around Europe converge in a series of demands which, in their very spontaneity and obviousness, form a kind of ‘epistemological obstacle’ to the proper confrontation with the ongoing crisis of our political system.” While I am not entirely sure what counts for him as a protest, what he considers to be a demand, and especially what he means by an epistemological obstacle in this context, I will simply note that abandoning the terrain of politics as we knew it must mean ceasing to be concerned with the “proper confrontation” with the crisis of politics (of states, of their economic systems, of their official cultural forms, etc.). For us, demands in the traditional sense are useless, and usually contradictory to our very ways of life. In practice this might mean one or more of the following: no demands, impossible demands, ridiculous demands, and vague, useless demands.[1] Indeed, any of these other sorts of demands or non-demands can and should form something like an “epistemological obstacle” from the point of view of the State and statist politics. The only confrontation we will participate in is one that the State (and States in waiting) will judge improper.

Whether any of us knows how to live out our position without succumbing to incoherence or irrelevance in the long term is another matter. That the position is currently weak is only an argument against it in terms of conventional politics. It is our gamble to exit those terms.

An afterthought:  provisionally, in terms of our current situation, it occurs to me that the only way to approach the mainstream press would not be to place propaganda there (be it of the traditional or clownish Žižekian sort), but simply to fill any space we can occupy with detourned text and images. Beyond that, supposing increasing autonomy and momentum, we can either aim to withdraw completely from the medium, or to neutralize it, doing whatever it takes to remove it completely from our sphere.


[1] Such as the ones from Tiananmen Square Agamben refers to in the final section of The Coming Community: “what was most striking about the demonstrations of the Chinese May was the relative absence of determinate contents in their demands.”

A Predictable Journey

The Hobbit, the Chase Scene, and the Suspension of Imagination

The first cinema installment of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was visually stunning, technically faithful to the book (even in its revisions), and benefited from having at least a few serious Tolkien geeks working on the project. Notwithstanding, everyone who collaborated with the film, and this goes for Lord of the Rings as well, deserves to be hung from a tripalium and flayed to death, as any reasoning person would agree. For its fundamental faithlessness goes far beyond its replication of the original plot, although The Two Towers struck out on those grounds alone, when Aragorn fell off a cliff (in a part of Middle Earth where, I’m pretty sure, there are no cliffs) just so he could come back in a touchingly Hollywood, “Hey bra, I’m not really dead!” scene; when an army of elves marches (lockstep, no less) up to Helm’s Deep to help fight off the Uruk-hai; and when a fickle Faramir kidnaps Frodo and Sam and hauls them all the way back to Osgiliath before having a change of heart (“Oh Faramir, I knew you wouldn’t let us down!” the seasoned reader and the unread moviegoer are meant to say in unison).

aragorns-cliff

Nor is it the weakness of two central characters: Bilbo, whose particular mix of timidity, decor, and wanderlust is missed entirely by the screenwriters and actor Martin Freeman; and Thorin, whose actor looks far less like a dwarf than Richard Lee Armitage looks like a troll; nor the juvenile subplot of mistrust and acceptance that passes between them.

This last defect, however, points to a deeper problem. The cheap Hollywood fake-out infests these movies like orcs plague Moria. It is there when Aragorn falls off a cliff in The Two Towers, it is there in The Hobbit when the dwarves ride a collapsed scaffold down about a hundred meters of chasm in the bowels of the Misty Mountains with nary a broken bone, a veritable roller coaster ride that may have been, a friend suggested to me, deliberately inserted into the movie in preparation for the inevitable theme park attraction and video games. It is there when the stubby-legged protagonists successfully outrun warg-riding orcs, as the faster villains close the distance only to lose it again each time the camera cuts. And it is there when a human-nosed Thor (did his agent stipulate that he got to act without any facial prosthetics?), looking more like Rasputin than the son of Thrain, approaches a newly heroic Bilbo as if to rebuke him, only to embrace him in a painfully predictable repeat of that well known Hollywood ploy.

The fake-out is everywhere. It is hard to imagine Indiana Jones, and most other action movies, without it. In the film adaptation of The Hunger Games, for which the book’s own author writes the screenplay, one of the few deviations from the original comes in the form of a chase scene fake-out. Instead of encountering the wolf creatures at the relative safety of the “cornucopia”, Katniss and Peeta encounter them in the woods and have to outrun them, something they can only accomplish through the munificence of the camera work.

The only tasteful occurrence of a fake-out I can think of comes to us in The Empire Strikes Back, when an estranged Lando Calrissian berates Han Solo and then suddenly hugs him. In this case, neither the audience nor Han knows how old friend Lando is going to receive him, and Lando is introduced as someone both dangerous and mysterious, qualities which his subsequent affability does not erase.

Bilbo, on the other hand, has just saved Thorin’s life (this never happens in the book, so the whole scene is gratuitous from the get-go), so we all know that honorable Thorin is going to thank him, not mistreat him. Nonetheless, we are forced to sit through a long moment of contrived tension as the dwarf approaches Bilbo in apparent anger before suddenly embracing him. Likewise, when Aragorn falls off the cliff or the dwarves fall down the chasm, we all know they are going to live, not only because most of us have read the book, but because the movie has signaled to us from beginning to end which genre rules it follows; in this case, that no character will be killed off until a sufficiently dramatic, conclusive point in the narrative.

The real Thorin is too grave a person to toy with the poor hobbit’s emotions, for the same reason that he is too gruff to spare Burglar Baggins the emotional conflict the filmmakers have unfortunately decided to exaggerate. The relationship between Thorin and Bilbo given to us by J.R.R. Tolkien is already full of strife. Why invent petty conflicts to exaggerate it, or bring it up to an infantile surface?

The puerile emotional play of the fake-out reaches its cheapest extreme in the Hollywood chase scene. The minimum requirement for an intense chase scene is the close getaway. If the villain travels at 30km an hour and the hero at 15km and safety is 100 meters away, why start them off at a distance of only 10 meters? Is the audience assumed to be sensorily incapable of realizing that the warg travels much faster than the dwarf? Kropotkin outran his faster guards and escaped imprisonment in St. Petersburg using geometry, the problem of the hound and the hare. Movie heroes only ever outrun orcs, T-Rexs, avalanches, and meteors, thanks to the fact that every time the camera cuts, their pursuer loses at least a good 10 meters.

By contemplating the largely subtextual conflict between Bilbo and Thorin, by imagining Kropotkin’s escape, a reader may have as much excitement as their imagination permits. But imagination is precisely what the movies kill as they provide stimulation through an almost mechanical milking of the viewer’s adrenal gland, offering up stimuli at the most basic reactive and chemical levels: a vision of falling, the image of pursuit, raised voices and gestures of anger suddenly reconciled. Why the atrophied adrenal glands, when most viewers have lived far less adventurous lives than Bilbo Baggins even before Gandalf carved a sign on his door? He at least gardens, an exercise in hope and suspense foreign to the most veteran players of video games.

One is reminded of the junkie, whose only pleasure comes in more frequent doses.

It is not disbelief that is suspended, but imagination itself, for a robust imagination finds no marrow in such petty provocations.

The true faithlessness of the movie derives from the use of cinema to fix imagination. Ours is not a caricatured Luddism that hates and fears the movie form itself. The movie as an art form can do things that the book as an art form cannot, even when the former is a rendition of the latter. No less than Edward Abbey said that Lonely Are the Brave was better than his book (The Brave Cowboy) in everything but the title. In recent years, the Coen Brothers have excelled in crafting original pieces inspired by literary works that are neither superseded nor trampled, that are left untouched on a parallel plane of artistic creation.

Ours is a principled and historic Luddism that strikes back at that which assaults us. The greatest strength of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are that these are tales within a mythical cosmos that is highly developed yet unbounded, known through completed stories and unfinished fragments rather than through encyclopedic certainty. They form “a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story – the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths” in Tolkien’s own words. In truth, the movies are a greater travesty for the participation of Tolkien geeks who have been drawn to the power of the silver screen like Easterlings to Morgoth. For those geeks can fill in the backcloth, bring it closer, define it and thus limit it. Radagast and Dol-goldur unmet were left to the imagination. They were a distant mystery both to wee Bilbo and to the reader. Brought into the foreground of The Hobbit‘s narrative, however, they are cast in megapixels, frozen as though in the dragon’s gaze.

The movies have surpassed the might of the old books. Now, there is a website, thehobbit.com which opens with Martin Freeman’s face and music from the film. Googling any of the characters from the books will bring up interviews and images of the actors from the movie. An image search for “The Hobbit” brings up, in the first hundred hits, only images of the recent film. None of the amazing book covers that have appeared over the years, none of the hundreds of renditions of characters and scenes from various artists, not even stills from the 1977 cartoon movie, which, despite a few factual errors, is far truer to the book.

Evidently, the idolization of The Hobbit is nothing new. But contrary to how the earlier engravings did not preclude a reader’s own imaginings—and those imaginings retained sovereignty—the new movie overwhelms all the prior renditions and imposes a definitive set of images.

In one of the important philosophical debates of the 5th Century BC, idolization was attacked in part because it fixed divinity in a bounded, concrete image. A counter to this argument is that the attempt to universalize divinity as an amaterial abstraction is to alienate the physical world and to flatten an array of places that had been defended from their subsumption to any rational, administerable grid through the exceptionality of localized relations of worship.

Curiously, both abstraction and idolization serve to substitute an active practice of spiritual commoning. Spiritual interaction with a boundless world requires one to take imaginative initiative in forging the intangible relationships they feel a need for. Interaction with an idol requires merely ritualized appeasement (which, it should be noted, is easily taxable—probably why the Catholic Church brought idolization back). Interaction with an abstracted divinity requires obedience to commandments. In this latter case, one no longer even chooses their relationship with what has become an omniscient higher power.

Once the abstraction of the divine had alienated the world of its divinity, free relationships take refuge in the imaginary. As the State advances, our imagination takes us to increasingly distant worlds. These worlds also need to be enclosed.

In the movie theaters, The Hobbit was preceded by an advertisement for tourism to New Zealand that tantalizes viewers with images of mystifying mountains, spiritual journeys, and constructions from the film itself, open to visitors. Just as an authentic hobbit village is constructed on fixed ground, the geography of Middle Earth is fixed to the film’s shooting locations. In a perhaps unconscious, perhaps inevitable twist, Tolkien’s explicitly European imaginary is imposed on colonized land.

In an alienated world, idolization becomes the process of fixing the imaginary, bringing the many flights of fantasy back into contact with the commodity form. But it’s not about making money. The reason the State is busily sending its apparatuses into the imaginary goes far beyond a vulgar economism or any simple need to take advantage of the success of Tolkien’s ouevre and make some money off of it. The present enclosure is every bit as much a measure of social control as the “strategic hamlets” set up in the Vietnam War. Even when imagination is used as nothing more than a harmless form of avoidance, apparatuses will arise to bring it back into the fold. Capitalism permits no escape.

A story well told encourages the audience to imagine themselves in it, and to invent stories of their own. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, in particular, is a structure that invites fantasy, because rather than a story he created an entire world with the power to draw one into it. None of Tolkien’s narratives are closed structures; they all invite further exploration, opening more questions than they close. An active imagination is powerful precisely because it can create new worlds and allow us to travel between them, whether these are worlds of escape or worlds that contest capitalist reality and the State’s designs on our future.

A variety of institutions, from MGM, to Google, to the New Zealand tourism department, have converged to fix the imaginative world of Middle Earth to a specific geography and set of images. The result of all these maneuvers is to atrophy the mind’s eye under a barrage of hyper-produced, objective stimuli. And just as the commodity substitutes the satisfaction of a desire, the apparatus of the movie theater, with its immersive experience, now in 3D, substitutes the joy of imagining with the pleasure of sensory stimulation. The movie succeeds in this underhanded endeavor precisely because its representation of Middle Earth is so thorough.

Tolkien’s storytelling creates an intense longing to visit the magical place he has constructed. This longing is a special feeling, as it can never be satisfied. The reader will be enticed to imagine themselves a bridge to that world, but the visit cannot be definitive. The tension caused by uncertainty encourages further imagination, and the longing causes discontentment with the lack of magic in the present world. The sounds and images of the movie, convincing in their fullness and even backed up by a real hobbit village awaiting exploration in New Zealand, provide the illusion of visiting that unreachable world. Their effect is to extinguish longing. Just like a commodity, whose value is extinguished in the moment it is possessed, the movie appears to satisfy the desire to know a fantastic world when in reality it kills it. While this is happening, the viewer is overwhelmed by stimuli. But when the film is done, they are numb. The fantastic world has proved to be hollow. There is nothing left but to seek another fix. One more year until the sequel, and in the meantime, there seem to be some good apocalypse movies coming up, and of course, the video game.

The mechanical milking of the adrenal glands the movie accomplishes with its frequent use of the fake-out clues us to the fact that this imagination-destroying act is in fact a productive process. The apparatus of the movie theater uses its power to reproduce an unreachable world, and thus gives the audience the simulacram of the appeasement of their longing, to create an emotive bond. This is a case of power/affect. By allowing themselves to be enticed by the idolization that is accomplished within the theater, relieving themselves of the need to formulate their own relations with the imaginary, the audience surrenders their fantasy world, they turn their imagination over to the proper authorities, allowing its enclosure and alienation.

The result is not merely the chance to make a few million bucks off a story that before was only minimally commoditized, or a few million more off of tourism to New Zealand. What is produced is a generation of captives who are incapable of imagining other worlds, and who are dependent on a host of apparatuses to manage their yearnings.

Notes on the Context and Positions of Hello

In its look, organization, and some of its concerns, the recently published pamphlet Hello could be a distant echo of the Call, which is now ten years old. From this we might surmise that there is an intention on the part of its author to update the Call, to modify its position, or at least to echo its rhetorical force and its anonymous spread. I do not think Hello can be reduced to a repetition of or response to the Call; but the connection allows for some context for Hello.

 

phone2 (1)

One way to discern the positions at work in Hello would be to consider how it might be connected to the texts gathered in the 2011 collection Communization and its Discontents. I will not be the first to note that the Call, Tiqqun, and especially anyone moved or excited by reading them appear as the proximate enemy in the pieces in the first part of that collection, especially the prominently placed “What are we to do?” by Endnotes. There is probably but one text in the rest of the collection that presents any of the above-mentioned in a positive light. There, are, of course, details and debates as to how the various writers involved and invoked in the collection conceive communization, but, at a macro-level, the first lesson of the “communization debate” as framed here seems to boil down to grasping that it is Call/Tiqqun/their fans vs. everyone else. Once that distinction is made, the debate may proceed with due seriousness. The entire collection may perhaps be seen as a corrective that attempts to respond to enthusiasm for the Call and Tiqqun’s writings, as they gain increasing prominence in the US (and perhaps the Anglosphere generally).

Due to its family resemblance to the Call, Hello will be perceived as being on the “Tiqqun side” of the communization debate (considered in its macro form). Its writer may have taken this into account, since Hello will frustrate those who share the position elaborated most prominently by Endnotes in Communization and its Discontents.

Call and Hello both set out from an analysis of the situation: not the constructed situation, but what can be known in one’s everyday life. Though Hello does not use this term, it discusses the communicative (or usually non-communicative) situations of everyday life from the title on. Their skepticism is first of all a skepticism about communication and connections with others. Beginning from the situation, the Call advances to organization, to communes; Hello proposes, after its relentless questioning of all social and political life, including friendship, moralism, organization, and representation, what it calls “commitment to commitment.” This phrase seems to refer to a moment anterior to forming a position; it is something more on the order of a criterion concerning positions. That said, one can discern positions in Hello despite the lack of familiar jargon. And in these positions we might locate, not so much a new contribution to the “communization debate” as a strange response to or intervention into it.

First, Hello has an individualist/egoist streak that is illegible in terms of the positions set out in Communization and its Discontents as well as the Call. Hello evidences this in its concern with moralism as well as in its reiteration of the classic egoist’s troublemaking stance that one is free to leave a project at any time. One is reminded of the way Debord dismisses individualist anarchism out of hand in Society of the Spectacle, even though the individualist/egoist practice of joining and leaving groups more or less at will (announced as far back as Stirner) provides a glaring contrast with and problematization of the problems of all the groups and parties Debord criticizes in the long fourth chapter of his book, but also, pre-emptively, of the workers’ councils themselves, well before Théorie Communiste or anyone else pointed out that they retained the form of capitalist management, merely swapping out the managers.

Second, Hello also has an even more prominent nihilist position, evident first of all in its silence concerning organization and utter skepticism towards representation and all political forms, parliamentary or extraparliamentary. Not to speak of the business about everything and Everything! This nihilism appears somewhat more subtly in its “corrosive” skepticism about historical justifications and explanations (though Hello contradictorily indulges in some of that in first proposition and elsewhere): this includes the sorts of periodizations all marxists and most communists engage in. Conversely, what is more certain in Hello, namely, the communicative situation or its impossibility, their immediate surroundings and personal relations, will seem trivial for Endnotes and company. For Endnotes such evidences amount to “the self-affirmation of a self-identifying radical milieu.”[1] On the other hand, given the fact that it is so critical of everything from the individual’s comfort in belonging (to a couple, for example), to crews or groups, to subcultures and, yes, milieus, could one not say that Hello has absorbed this critique, and opted for a highly skeptical relation to the milieu rather than its infinitely more vague alternatives?

This last issue is perhaps the crux of the “debate” from the point of view of Hello. The pamphlet does seem to advocate some version of friendship and perhaps, as “commitment to commitment,” some version of adherence to the milieu (though it never uses this term positively). This as opposed to… the mysterious mass deployment of communizing measures by the soon-not-to-be proletariat. But it will be difficult to associate Hello entirely with Endnotes’ real or imagined antagonists, because it does not advocate sharing, withdrawal, or making communes in any way. Hello is openly anti-political, and there is nothing of what Endnotes refers to as “alternativism” in it. (“Alternativism” is defined as “practices which aim to establish liberated areas outside of capitalist domination.”)

For Endnotes, the Call falls into the trap of not naming capitalism in favor of “an ill-defined generic nobodaddy (capitalism, civilization, empire etc.) that is to be undone by —at the worst points of Call—the Authentic Ones who have forged ‘intense’ friendships, and who still really feel despite the badness of the world,” and not discussing a praxis at the level of the totality. The same criticism could be leveled at Hello, with its playful opposition to everything/Everything—but this leads to the oddest thing about it. It begins in agreement about the second point, deeply questioning friendship and communication, and then precariously reconstructs them at the end. This could be because more than capitalism is at stake. Could this be the third and most subtle position at work in Hello, an unstated but influential green or anti-civilization perspective?[2] From this point of view Hello might be suggesting that something greater than what any history or periodization could name is at stake. Perhaps for them nothing is comprehensible at the level of the totality; Everything is by definition ill-defined. (From this point of view one could even interpret the references to an Outside and especially the conclusion of Hello as mysticism.)

Hello is, in the realm of manifestos, minimalistic: it only calls out what its author says they have done, and greets others from that situation. Its apparent positions are ways to maneuver towards that greeting. Its attractiveness, its potential success, is that it requires less belief (and, incidentally, less study) than the positions of Endnotes and company to be entertained. But is the author totally skeptical about mass action, or do they just see what they are doing as so separate from such events that they prefer not to comment on them?[3] One might say the Hello position is one so skeptical that it is not disposed to talk about mass anything. It remains concerned with the communicative situation itself, and how we are bound or unbound in it (the entire matter might be described as a bifurcation between two uses of the prefix com-; one might instructively consult the respective etymologies of commune and commit).

 

 


[1] One wonders if all of the spite directed at such a milieu or milieus on their part has to do with 1) nostalgia, however well hidden or repressed, for the vanguard 2) resentment, however well hidden or repressed, about the non-dissolution of the focused radical acts of such milieus into a mass scale (“the level of the totality”).

[2] The title Communization and its Discontents echoes the well-known title given by James Strachey to his English translation of Freud’s pessimistic Civilization and its Discontents. The German title of the latter might more literally be rendered The Uneasiness in Culture. This uneasiness, Unbehagen, manifests sometimes as a guilty conscience, sometimes as inexplicable anxiety, and is, Freud proposes, something like the price one pays for belonging to Kultur, civilization. Well, Hello seems concerned precisely with that feeling of uneasiness, guilt, or anxiety; its anti-politics perhaps begins there, perhaps, in a refusal to carry on as though that feeling were not there.

[3] The same question could be asked of the non-connection between communization theory and communizing measures, at least according to the usual predictions on who might undertake the latter.

The Savage Fruit of Alienation

Savage Messiah by Laura Oldfield Ford, Verso (2011).

Architecture, for all its aspirations, is usually far too dated. Even for the untrained eye, it is easy to spot when most buildings were designed. And yet, after the luster of newness fades, architecture still casts its long shadow on the future. It is on each side of this phenomenology of time and structure that the Situationists and their inheritors lie. The Situationists, enraptured by rapid mid-century urbanization, tore up cobblestones to find the beach beneath the streets. But after all that work, the beach was not paradise but a desert, and so they turned their rage on a deserving target: the police. Yet today, the life of the Situationists is not on the streets, but has been ossified into wooden art objects and thick academic tomes.

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Laura Oldfield Ford’s Savage Messiah, an anthology of the ‘zine that the Londoner published from 2005-2009, runs Situationism in reverse. It is like that dumb joke about what happens when you listen to a country music backwards – the cowboy gets his pickup, dog, and wife back. By the end of Savage Messiah, the utopian impulse of Situationist urbanism returns while the city is smashed, and even the police seem to fade into mere afterthought. The legacy of Situationism is obvious in Savage Messiah, as Ford explicitly names her project a dérive, the Situationist’s psychological exploration of the subjective experience of urbanism, and passages from situationist-related writers, theorists, and urbanists (Baudelaire, Bataille, Benjamin, Simmel, Ballard, Deleuze, Negri) are peppered throughout the text. But even more generally, the book offers a picture-perfect rendering of Situationist psychogeography because it presents a journey through a city that is too full of discontinuous times, spaces, and images to ever fit on a map.

Savage Messiah begins where the original Situationist International fell apart; the cover depicts riot cops emptying out whatever space might still exist outside dilapidated 60’s estates. This is disorienting at first, as the zig-zag history of architecture that structures the narrative hardly provides a stable set of reference points. Yet one needs not be from London to get the book. And perhaps it would even be best to never have been there at all. This book is better for swimming in than reading. Once the reader crosses the thick black edges that define the book’s own private world, Ford’s images, thoughts, and language remain only partially penetrable. Cut up and pasted side-by-side are many hand-drawn portraits, lists of punk shows attended or d’n’b songs overheard, occasional histories of revolt, stories of quick trips to a bar or flat, photos of empty hallways, recollections of strong smells, cleverly detourned graft slogans, shots of towering buildings, and many tales of being kissed by a new acquaintance. Despite the richness of the world presented, however, it would be a mistake to look for the numerous strands of the book to form a totality.

Rather than providing a fully-knowable totalizing perspective, the seemingly disconnected pieces of Savage Messiah make up an immersive environment that expresses the subjective experience of the city: alienation. The ideal reader is then an outsider. Replicating the experience of walking down the street, the book recalls times and places you have not experienced and never will. Its many people are strangers that you will never meet. Yet being alienated from this nowhere that is populated by nobodies does not produce a non-experience, but in fact, it presents the exact form of experience that dominates modern life. Run-ins and strange connections still occur during encounters with other alienated beings that drift through an environment beyond their control, but these unions are always temporary and feel more like an ongoing series of accidents than cosmic fate.

Yet the alienation of living in a shitty flat or being stuck in the rundown part of town is not something that the book laments. However, it is not something that the book celebrates or protects either, as Ford heaps out disdain for both yuppies lording it and encroaching Olympics 2012 development. Rather, the alienation that comes with city life is presented as fact, though that fact also bears an accompanying range of feelings and urges. Boredom, aimlessness, excitement, frustration, and rage become creativity, exploration, pursuit, destruction, and violence. And this potent mixture is neither more natural nor more inauthentic than mixes found elsewhere, whether it be in the heat of the factory or in wild country air. Rather, these feelings are simply how it is and the question question is only how to put them to use.

Savage Messiah is not without its commentators and critics. And in this regard, Ford’s work suffers a fate similar to the Situationists. On the one hand, the book gets accused of failing at dull stale leftist tasks. But it would be idiotic to read it as a field guide with organizational schemes (for it has none), or worse yet, to vulgarly reduce its richness to a rhetorical screed against gentrification. And on the other, the book gets reduced to art object or documentary archive that simply preserves forgotten or marginal aspects of the city for display. What both these interpretations miss is the purpose of Ford’s text: to fashion crumbling architecture into missiles and barricades. London is not to be saved from the developers but transformed into a punk war machine that screams “Estate Agents! Up against the South facing wall!” as it steamrolls through fascists.

It takes time in Ford’s boozed voyages past various people and places to build up a clear notion of what she finds beneath the city streets. But as the book begins to close, Savage Messiah is clearly set on its warpath. After an exhilarating description of riots, the book ends with a photo of Ford and her crew that is followed by a long coda of pitch black pages. In the final picture, a man casually stands over an upended monitor in triumph over The Spectacle, another two pick up a sofa as if moving it the barricades, and Ford poses in the foreground with a molotov cocktail in hand. The message of the image is clear. But what do the fully-saturated pages at the end suggest? A future too dark to depict? A future more rich than images? Or a future yet to be written?

Bring Back The Metropolitan Indians!

You have built the Reservation for us, and now you want to chase us back into it, into the ghettos of marginalization and despair. No more is this possible! Because it is precisely out of the ghettos that our Rebellion has exploded. Today Human Beings have found themselves again, have found their strength, their joy of collective living, their anger, and their thirst for communism.
-The Metropolitan Indians of North Rome, 1977

metro_indians_city

Some say that a certain distance lends itself to a certain obscurity, but a certain distance can also lend itself to certain clarity. When Franz Kafka wrote Amerika, his final novel, he had never been to the United States and in his book he describes the Statue of Liberty holding a sword in her hand, not a torch. Max Brod, the man who ensured that his friend’s work would become immortal after his death, did not edit out this error. We can only speculate as to why Kafka believed the statue held a sword. The torch in her hand is meant to be a symbol of freedom, a beacon for the poor and hungry immigrants of the world to flock to. But as we all know, when the immigrants arrived, they found the sword hanging above their heads.

We have no idea who the Whitherburo are but it is clear they are not from the United States. Their name is a combination of the English adverb whither and the Spanish word for donkey, one of the most dependable, stubborn, and burdened animals on the planet. Together, their name could be taken to mean, “to what place, donkey?”

The Whitherburo have pierced directly into the heart of the United States with their new book, simply titled Whitherburo. Their ideas of this country (a place they despise) are informed by history books, radical literature, the internet, a few conversations, a few visits, and a surprising amount of inspiration. But like Kafka, they have inserted one strange item into their text: the idea of the Indian.

They dwell often on the counter-culture that emerged throughout the developed world in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In this upsurge of revolutionary activity, they find a desire to evoke, channel, or otherwise manifest the spirit of the earth and the forces of life that were being suppressed by fascist/colonial culture.

In the section of the book titled Indians, the authors write “the Americans unnaturally wiped out a people who loved and respected nature and integrated it with their lives. Now the Americans wander about, talking constantly about spiritual belonging, organic food, and so forth. They killed the Indians and paved the land only to regret it later. This is nihilism.” The forces of life that were suppressed during the colonization of North America are constantly struggling to return, to reverse the tide and push back “the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people (Symbionese Liberation Army, 1974).”

When the authors use the term Indian throughout the text, they are referring to these suppressed natural forces, the eternal antagonists to the American project of total fascism. Their use of Indian as a term potentially ripe with antagonism is perhaps intentionally ironic, or perhaps naively so. Regardless of their purpose and motivations, it revives a history of the fetishization of Native cultures while simultaneously asking us to consider how the symbol of the Indian might constitute the spirit of anti-fascism. In the section titled Digression on Nazism and America, the authors make clear that the nihilistic death culture of America is not accidentally, but consciously fascist. “If America brings the Nazis into its own country, puts them back in power in West Germany and Greece, and helps them come to power all over Latin America, Africa, and Asia, it is because America has an affinity with Nazism.

Franz Kafka was to die before the horror of the Nazis exterminated his entire family in the furnaces and death camps of fascist Europe. In regards to our dear Franz, the authors offer the following words. “Kafka well understood America, even though he never visited, and his book Amerika certainly deserves a higher estimation than it receives amongst Americans, who in their typical stupidity treat it as some sort of comedy unique amongst his works, instead of reflecting that he, as an early chronicler of the emerging bureaucratic nihilism, hound his only real country for study in America.”

Every metropolis is created by the forces of death. It surrounds and enslaves the forces of life, the rebels, the insurgents, the people who simultaneously inhabit this web of domination and struggle to destroy it. This war is constant and never ending, and the Indians suffer long defeats and sudden victories that threaten to engulf the world. The upsurge of revolution in the United States that took place in the 1960’s and 1970’s was a moment of possibility that revealed the continued existence of the spirit of life.

In the 60’s, the fun Americans were having is contextualized by remembering the horrific, earth-crushing sadness of the Puritans in The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible. When we hear of the street theater of the Diggers, the joys of Woodstock, of the counter culture, we see that Americans were finally starting to enjoy themselves, which meant a break with the Protestant death culture of willing nothingness…The nihilism of American life swallowed up the return of the Indian children, for a brief time at least. But it will only re-start, and this time in a more virulent and final fashion.

While their use of the word nihilism may not synchronize with the common, contemporary understanding, this author finds it to be appropriate. To them, America is the triumph of nihilism. It is nothingness made material and virulent, spreading across the entire world. It hollows out the minds of the population, turning them into dead shells who are concerned only with aesthetics, appearance, image, and representation. When these poor shells first dream of rebellion, they always start by imitating and appropriating the appearances of the rebels that the death culture has extinguished. They do not make this point to forever condemn all potential rebels, but merely to highlight the long and difficult process of decolonization.

In 1975, Bommi Baumann, a former fighter in the June 2nd Movement, published his memoir How It All Began while living underground. In the book, he explains the multiform, diffuse, and ecstatic counter-culture that came to be known as the “support base” of the various guerrilla groups that operated in Germany. Before it took on such a militaristic and lifeless character, the counter-culture was its own weapon of liberation against the forces of death. But all of that began to change.

In the second half of his memoir, Baumann laments this turn that the counter culture took. Before, people would smoke hash, grow their hair long, express their sexuality, commit irrational acts on the street in large groups, and burn things they did not like whenever they were possessed to do so. Life was the guiding force, the spirit that made Baumann quit his alienating job and become a freak. However, as a guerrilla in the J2M, Baumann suddenly found himself forced to dress like the people he despised in order not to be apprehended and remain underground.

Suddenly you’re right there again. You’re standing there with short hair, with a suit, with everything the same again as where you came from; and the people around you react in the same way, they’re just as hardened as you. So you wore yourself out all those years, and did everything, and suddenly you arrive right back there again…the more you make yourself illegal, that is to say, the further you isolate yourself, the more secret the things you are doing become, the more you fall right into this consumerism. Of course, you can’t run around like you did before, so you keep getting more velvet suits, and at the end you look like you’ve jumped right out of Playboy.

The authors of Whitherburo are correct in believing that most Americans (including American radicals, anarchists, etc.) have no knowledge of people like Bommi Baumann or the lessons that others like him tried to pass on. To them, Americans are a largely stupefied and ignorant mass of nihilists with no connection to the past and no hope for the future. The hatred of America that courses through this text cannot be overstated.

Unlike the Americans that they despise so deeply, the authors do offer a clear suggestion to their readers. They believe the spirit of the earth, the spirit of the Indian, will lay waste to the nihilist void threatening to destroy the world. Although the revolutionaries of the 60’s and 70’s might have imperfectly understood this spirit and appropriated forms that were not theirs to have, the authors do not discourage similar efforts. And nor does this author, for that matter.

Before we offer one final quote from the book, I would like to clearly state that we need a return of the freak, the mad, the irrational, and chaotic, and the wild. No more stupefaction, hollowness, depression, or frigidity. We need life, love, joy, rebellion, madness, and laughter. Bring back the Metropolitan Indian! Channel the spirit of the earth! Go wild, be free, and destroy what destroys you!

It is very appropriate that some revolutionaries of ’77 called themselves Metropolitan Indians. These groups knew unconsciously that their real enemy was America, and that the real enemy of America is not the proletariat but the Indians, who represent the power of spirituality returning to a world from which it had apparently been banished. When the factories crumble and reveal their spiritually transient character, all the magic, the metaphysics they had repressed from the world returns to a new and everlasting life. Now the next revolution in this historic chain of appearances will in its turn annihilate historical nothingness, the American Way of Life.

The Reign of Stupidity

Carnival and Cannibal, Ventriloquous Evil
Baudrillard, Jean.
London, New York, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2010
92 Pages.

 More than others, Anarchists seem to suffer most under the Reign of Stupidity.  Stupidity reigns, has always reigned and according to Jean Baudrillard, it is virtually a perk of holding office.  Stupidity is what he says Power does to people, as it rules over our highly complex, scientific, techno-information-society.    Jean Baudrillard died before Barak Obama was elected, but it is certain that his conceptualization wouldn’t have changed:

rollercoaster

…a majority of [voting] Americans desire the presence in the White House of someone whose stupidity and banality underwrite their own conformism. The more stupid he is, the less personally idiotic they will feel…In this ‘stupid’ hereditary function, power is a virtual configuration that absorbs any element and metabolizes it to its advantage. It may be formed of countless intelligent particles, but that will change nothing of its opaque structure: it is like a body that changes its cells but continues to be the same…America will have become Black, Indian, Hispanic or Puerto Rican [and I would add Asian] without ceasing to be America… it will be all the more integrist for having become, in actuality, multiracial and multicultural. And all the more imperialist for being led by the descendants of the slaves. This is how it is. It is a paradox…” (pp.16-17, brackets mine, fj).

 Throughout his life, Jean Baudrillard was concerned with the effects of Wealth/Power on the life of the mind. Nearly alone among French philosophers, he took the Situationists’ Society of the Spectacle at its word and his work is a logical extension of theirs.  For him, ‘Spectacle’ is the whole of Western socialization: as it is taught in schools; seen in films and TV; propelled in advertisement;  built in architecture; legislated in representative democracies; meted out in punishments in courtrooms and jails; researched in laboratories and forced onto others by the actions of its military apparatus.

… We may ask ourselves whether these Whites…are not already figures in a masquerade; we may ask whether they are not already caricatures of themselves, characters taking themselves for their own masks. The Whites may thus (be) said to have carnivalized – and hence cannibalized- themselves long before exporting all this to the whole world. We have here the great parade of a culture in the grip of a profusion of resources and offering itself for its own consumption, with mass consumerism and the consumption of all possible goods merely providing the most current form of this self-devouring…It is all a great collective spectacle, in which the West decks itself out not only in the spoils of all the other cultures – in its museums, fashions and art – but also in the spoils of its own culture.” (pp. 7-8, parenthesis mine-fj).

So the first part of this book is called Carnival and Cannibal.  Both words are shorthand for Jean Baudrillard’s 30 page depiction of the legacies of Western bourgeois culture.  “Carnival” is the parade of modernization: all the Western technical, economic and political values marching to the tune of evangelization, colonization, decolonization, globalization and hegemony.  “Cannibal” is the increasingly obvious sense that what is being produced by Carnival is a parody which devours itself (pp.4-11).
Everyone is ‘decked out’ in the signs of the master race, its fashion, its art, its technology, its free market, its ‘digital imperative’, but in the same moment, we falsify ourselves in our mimicry. One thinks immediately of college students and academics, of Bono, of Asian kids in German luxury cars, of “Bureau Indians”, of American puppet governments in Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, of the new Billionaires of India and of course, of Barak Obama. Carnival and Cannibal are two movements of the same Westernization, from proselyte to self-parody.

 The previously held values of tribe, caricole, family, religion, temple, church and zen monastery all dissolve in the Carnival’s flood of words, images, lessons, attractions and commodities.  What’s left is the human fall-out we have today, a Disneyfied, Bollywoodized, Wall Streeted and 5th Avenue’d control society with its disoriented, demented participants: everyone in their places and wanting more, unable to think differently and destroying their own environment.  

The white missionaries of Wealth/Power hadn’t counted on the fact that they themselves are also their own victims. Western socio-political theory is thereby emptied out: no one (except maybe Zizek) believes in it anymore and the term ‘growth’ has a cancerous and pollutionary sense to it.  Cannibalism is a company against its employees AND its customers AND its environment (Wall Street). It is a country against the others AND its own people AND its own land (the US and the PIIGS countries). One thinks immediately of the French-Algerian rescue mission at an oil installation on 1/18/2013 which began by killing most of the hostages it was supposed to rescue. http://news.yahoo.com/deaths-escapes-algeria-hostage-crisis-still-not-over-141658716.html

Part Two of this book is 56 pages and is called “Ventriloquous Evil”. It is an address that was given in Quito, Ecuador in September 2006. Jean Baudrillard died the next spring, in March of 2007. In this part, Ventriloquous Evil is concerned with what happens after Western bourgeois cultural thought has been emptied of all meaning. It begins with an expression of the problem of ‘hegemony’ versus ‘domination’:

Domination is defined by what it is opposed to, by relations of force and internal contradictions. It is defined by a negativity, and, in order to exist, the master has as much need of the slave as the slave has of the master. Hegemony, by contrast, no longer has need of the opposite term; it does not need its contrary in order to exist – that contrary for which, unlike domination, it has no definition (which is why the concept of ‘liberation’ has no meaning for it: it has meaning only in the field of systems of domination). (pp. 35-36, parentheses in the original text).

Ventriloquous Evil is what happens when the Western “Good” wins and achieves hegemony. For those who might read this small book, it is best not to ruin it by telling the ending. Suffice it to say that Jean Baudrillard, right until his death, held out hope for humanity and he finds the solutions to these problems in the writing of Yukio Mishima and Alan Sillitoe among others – in the literature of Events. Jean Baudrillard’s symbolic realm of gift and potlatch opens a door for all of us:

There remains, also, the nostalgia cultivated by all heresies over the course of history – the dream, running parallel to the course of the real world, of the absolute event which would open on to a thousand years of happiness. The heightened expectation of the single event that would, at a stroke, unmask the enormous conspiracy in which we are immersed. This expectation is still at the heart of the collective imagination. The Apocalypse is present, in homeopathic doses, in each of us. (p. 89)

f. jones

To Beach or Not to Beach

He walked out into the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of an intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” –The Road, (130)

The Road is a post apocalyptic sci-fi novel, a love story, and a dark and inspiring metaphor for the nihilist project of destroying this world. Contained within this metaphor are meditations on myth, identity, symbolic culture, innocence, why we do what we do, and how we evaluate the consequences.

molotov

The story takes place roughly ten years after a nuclear war has devastated nearly everything on earth. Almost everyone is dead, and almost every last can of food has been scavenged. Dead naked trees pock the ash blanketed landscape falling one by one as time goes on. Seeds no longer germinate and there don’t seem to be any living animals, bugs, birds, or fish. The only remaining life as far as we can tell are the handful of humans who have survived the immediate aftermath and now wander about choking on ash as they forage and/or hunt other humans. There is talk of the existence of communes but we never encounter them or learn anything about them other than the fact that those exiled from the communes can be identified by missing fingers on their right hand. McCarthy tells us nothing about why the bombs went off. This is not a story about war or global politics. It is a story about a Man and a Boy, a father and a son, and the love between the two of them, “each the other’s world entire”(6).

We encounter these two characters just as they determine that where they are offers nothing but grim certainty, “There’d be no surviving another winter here” (p.2). They set out to change their conditions by venturing into the unknown; heading towards what is for them merely a vague notion, The Beach. Without knowing what to expect and with no way to accurately calculate an outcome, they decide to risk everything in order to create a condition for themselves in which new possibilities can emerge, rather than endure their current situation in which only one thing is possible. All they have to guide them is an old torn up roadmap that is difficult to decipher, partially because it was made for navigating a world that has since changed significantly. The road is dangerous and promises nothing, but the misery heaped on them by circumstances over which they had no control has made traversing it necessary.

Along the way the Man and Boy struggle to stay fed and hydrated. The stores and houses they search through have already long since been ransacked many times over. They have to remain hyper vigilant because there are marauding bands of cannibals. Natural selection seems to have favored those most willing to be organized and vicious:

He woke in the morning and turned over in the blanket and looked back down the road through the trees the way they’d come in time to see the marchers appear four abreast. Dressed in clothing of every description, all wearing red scarves at their necks. Red or orange, as close to red as they could find. He put his hand on the boy’s head. Shh, he said.
What is it, Papa?
People on the road. Keep your face down. Don’t look.
…An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. Lanyards at the wrist. Some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon…Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks…The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of truck spring in some crude forge upcountry…Behind them came the wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites ill clothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each.”(P 92)

At one point they stumble upon a pill box buried in someone’s yard fully stocked with food and water and various other supplies and sundries. Compared to life on the road, this comfortable hiding place resembles heaven on earth… Here they can enjoy the same basic material comforts as a prisoner, three hots and a cot, and about as much freedom. They stand no chance of improving their situation – of realizing any desires beyond mere survival. And the danger remains, any minute they could be caught helpless. On the road they can see danger coming and hide or run in any direction, they can also spot tracks and see if someone is on the road in front of them and avoid them, whereas in the bomb shelter they would be trapped like rats, one way in one way out. They decide they want more. They want the Beach.

The story flashes back briefly from time to time, sometimes to the Man’s memories of life before the fall, other times to a third person narrative or earlier events that lend context to the story. Some flashbacks are to what the author refers to as “the early years” in which “The frailty of everything [was] revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night.”(28) One is to the day when the bombs went off, and another is to a couple weeks after that when the Boy was born. One of the more profound and disturbing flashbacks is to the night the Boy’s Mother decides to take her own life “…with a flake of obsidian…Sharper than steel. The edge an atom thick.”(58)

Is Hamlet’s monologue the meditation of a criminal? He merely declares that if we had any certainty of being annihilated by it, death would be infinitely preferable to the world as it is.”(Schopenhauer, Studies In Pessimism)

The Mother’s suicide shatters the Kantian imperative regarding humanity as an end in itself (although she might affirm that this would be a fine act to “universalize”). Her existence combined with sentience produces only tension, which she resolves with a nihilist cadence. She openly acknowledges that this is a selfish act that will have an impact on those who care about her and she does so not just unapologetically but in a way that is callously triumphant. She mocks what she perceives as wounded manhood in her soon to be widowed husband and the absurd notion that he could somehow provide a life worth living for her and her son. She tells him death is her lover who will give her what he can’t. She is the one with the courage to embrace the nothing. “As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart. He didn’t answer. You have no argument cause there is none.”(57) Here, McCarthy takes that vulgar concept ‘sanctity of life’ that still haunts our culture, that serves power in its quest to erase the option of ‘nothing at all’, and iconoclastically ridicules and thrashes it. “And she was right. There was no argument.”(58)

Sci-fi authors have a way of using fiction to critique culture and power that is similar the means used by more academic social critics. For instance, what scholars like Nietzsche and Foucault offer with their genealogies that is of value to us iconoclasts is a means of rendering arbitrary and contingent the concepts and power structures we engage with in our daily lives that societies take for granted as being legitimate and sacred, universal and immutable. By examining and deconstructing the historical processes, the material and political conditions in which certain concepts gained utility for serving power and control (i.e., normalization) we can see how for example: normal and deviant, sane and insane, able bodied and disabled, masculine and feminine, white and of color, super-ordinate and subordinate, guilt and innocencen, etc., are not pure natural existential states but mere reifications acting as currency within a specific economy of power. And once the grid on which these elements operate is altered or destroyed they can all cease to exist or take on entirely new meanings and functions (like how paper currency became wallpaper after Argentina’s economy collapsed). Sci-fi authors do a similar thing by constructing a hypothetical future or an alternate past or present in which they can playfully imagine other social contexts where these concepts might have either different uses and meanings or possibly none at all.

The characters in The Road exist in a world that has already been destroyed. The material basis for the social relations that created the world we know has been annihilated by nuclear warfare. McCarthy shows us in his fictional scenario how–without having some social utility or institutionalized power structure to serve–once seemingly universal acontextual truths of human existence like justice, time, identity, morality, history, sanctity of life, innocence, community, progress, etc. all become useless anachronisms. There is a part when the Man points a gun at an attacker and explains a bunch of esoteric neuro-science about what is going to happen to the attacker’s brain when he pulls the trigger. The attacker asks, “What are you a doctor?” the Man replies, “I am not anything.”(68) No identity predicated on any category can have any meaning absent a symbolic culture in which to contextualize it. None of the characters in this story have names, “Who is it? Said the boy. I don’t know, who is anybody?” (49) McCarthy eulogizes in this story not just the death of people and infrastructure, but also the death of symbolic culture itself:

He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought…The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality.”(88) “The last instance of a thing takes the class with it.” (28)

Beneath the veil of abstractions, of spectacle and hyperreality, of social relations mediated by images, of culture and politics, we inhabit a world of bare ahistorical chaos and pure possibility just like the characters in this novel. The amenities in the world you and I live in are more abundant than what these characters have available, but the universe of abstractions that make up culture and meaning and a moral order are just as arbitrary and made up in both worlds, except that the characters in The Road have more control over the mythologies around which they orient their lives and gauge their decisions.

The man pretends to the boy that their life is given meaning by some cause that precedes and anticipates them, that exists outside of them and that can still exist even if they’re not alive to conceive of it. He tells the boy that he is appointed by god to protect the boy. He creates for the boy some millenarian myth of them “carrying the fire”. Carrying the fire protects them from harm and as carriers of the fire they do not engage in the behavior of the marauders, they don’t rape, kill, or cannibalize. The Man knows there is no such fire; he is only interested in protecting and comforting the boy. He does not do this because he believes their world contains any possibility of restoration or redemption. He is simply concerned with creating the least tortured existence he can for his son which sometimes means offering him a myth laden with hope, sometimes it involves holding a gun to his head ready to kill him before the cannibals find him. This is not a religious man. The closest he comes to prayer is a soliloquy in which he asks god if he has a neck by which he could throttle him. He has witnessed not only the death but also the cremation of god, the scattering of his ashes. But as Bataille tells us “The absence of god is no longer a closure: it is the opening up to the infinite.” It is greater and more divine and “(in the process I am no longer myself but an absence of self; I await the sleight of hand that renders me immeasurably joyful.)”(Absence of Myth, 48) For the boy, “the fire” is that sleight of hand.

We create myths for ourselves as anarchists, historic ones, they tell us where we came from and where we’re going and why our suffering is meaningful and redeemable. At times we even secularize the fundamental principal of eschatology: that history is not complete until God’s plan is fully realized in a human dimension. This myth-making can be helpful for us in the same way it is helpful for the Man and the Boy, it is a means of making sense of our choices within the context of conditions that are utterly absurd. But we are not agents of redemption here to restore humanity after its fall from grace. There is no state of grace and innocence to return to. There is no predetermined order that awaits humanity’s arrival at which point everything settles into its place and history stops. McCarthy’s story refuses any narrative of hope or redemption; he simply reveals choices and actions and consequences that occur in a chaotic ahistorical vacuum for no reason. Worlds come and go and the end is never the end and even if it is one day, it won’t mean anything because there will be no one around to conceive of it.

Where men can’t live gods fare no better…Things will be better when everybody’s gone.
They will?
Sure they will.
Better for who?
Everybody.
Everybody.
Sure. We’ll all be better off. We’ll all breathe easier.
That’s good to know.
Yes it is. When we’re all gone at last then there will be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He’ll be out on the road there with nothing to do and no one to do it to. He’ll say: Where did everybody go? And that’s how it will be. What’s wrong with that?”(173)

After watching the Lars Von Trier film Melancholia, in which a giant planet crashes into the earth destroying it, I stood on a hill overlooking the entire bay area and imagined seeing a planet beyond the clouds hurtling towards the earth and contemplated a sudden fiery end. As I watched the machines below with their lights and smoke crawling over the gridded landscape as well as the flying ones above, I tried to imagine what this place looked and sounded like two hundred years ago. Armageddon has already come and gone here. I didn’t notice because I wasn’t around, just like the Boy who never experienced the world of the Man. For those who lived here for thousands of years, the entire world as they experienced and understood it has been obliterated by a series of catastrophic events that still continue. All I’ve ever known is the aftermath, that is my world. Like the boy, I’ve heard stories of what it was like before but those are “…thing[s] which could not be put back.”(287). To us these characters seem to be simply running out the clock in the hopeless futureless debris of the old world. I imagine we might look the same way to someone from the destroyed world that used to exist where I live now.

The choices we face are similar to the ones faced by the characters in this story (which I’ve chosen to read as a parable) . Sometimes we want to hide out from the worst of it in the shelter, hoping to just comfortably enjoy each other’s company unmolested for a while. Sometimes we wish to opt out entirely like the Mother did; when all our options seem to only promise terror and tedium, choosing nothing seems like the most sensible thing to do. And sometimes we make a run for the Beach, even though we know we’ll probably not arrive there and could die trying. “He said that everything depended on reaching the coast, yet waking in the night he knew that all of this was empty and no substance to it. There was a good chance they would die in the mountains and that would be that.”(29) And it’s possible that it’s already or always has been too late, that we could remove the last paving stone and beneath it discover a Beach that’s not at all like we imagined: “Beyond that the ocean vast and cold and shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the gray squall line of ash. He looked at the boy. He could see the disappointment in his face. I’m sorry it’s not blue, he said. That’s okay, said the boy”.(215) But no matter what we choose on any given day, we have the ability to mythologize about our choices and their consequences however we please.

The next time you light a rag sticking out the end of a bottle half full of gasoline and motor oil ready to destroy everything that stands between you and the Beach, remember, nothing bad can happen to us because we are carrying the fire!

References

Bataille, Georges. The Absence of Myth. New York: Verso, 2006
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006
Schopenhauer, Arthur. Studies in Pessimism. ebooks. Adelaide. 29 Jan. 2011. Web. 9 Sept. 2012

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Unimaginable Weirdness: Comments on Some Comments on Desert

Recently, the anonymously written pamphlet Desert was reviewed by (the) two egoist newspapers: Cresencia Desafio (CD) in The Sovereign Self‘s sixth issue and by Apio Ludd (AL) in the very first issue of My Own. Both reviews are strikingly similar, each deploying their Stirner-inspired critique of both Hope and The Future against Desert. However, they failed to interest me for two reasons: they are responses to sentiments that, didn’t actually appear in the text, and, by focusing on the question of hope, flew straight past what I consider most exciting about the it.

I felt increasingly frustrated as the author emphasized mostly on the incumbent disasters of the future rather than focusing on potential contentions of the present. And even then, their plan of action was incredibly unclear, vapid, and even slightly confusing at times.

A Critique of Desert, CD


There are hints about who the author of Desert is addressing. I imagine that the text is primarily aimed at the anarchist who believes (or pretends to believe) that saving the world is possible: one who is attached to some version of the future (the rev, the collapse, whatever). I also imagine that the author of Desert thinks that things would be more interesting if they were surrounded by comrades who were relieved of such illusions.

Desert explores various possible futures, not with attachment, but as a way of demonstrating that insofar as we can say anything about the future, it is only that there will be one (probably) and that it will be incredibly complicated. This is one of the main points of the text: things possess an immense complexity that our politics rarely accounts for. The future will be filled with uncertainty (much like the present). In some places things will be exciting and liberatory, in others horribly oppressive. Whatever it is that we do, depends on where we are and what’s going on.

Desert is an exploratory work, not a prescriptive one. Perhaps CD found the author’s program ‘unclear’ because it lacked one. The author lays out what they think might happen in different parts of the world, they hypothesize possible ways that anarchists and radicals might respond to such shifts, and give interesting examples of what other people have done/are doing in similar circumstances. This is why the point about complexity is so important—not only does it become unimaginably difficult to develop any sort of program, prediction, or plan, but it also gives us reason to refocus our energies on what is most immediate in our lives. Desert points out that while we don’t have any capacity to completely understand, let alone save the planet we do have the capacity to interact with our local environments, to create a more expansive life project, to find accomplices, and to survive in ways that are increasingly liberating. This strikes me as a dramatic rejection of the distant for the immediate, both geographically and temporally.

The author of Desert remains such a slave; despite his/her critique, s/he has not Deserted hope.

Deserting Hope?, AL

…they did choose to focus largely on potential global chaos…which I perceive as a surrendering of themselves to the same age-old ‘when the revolution comes’ sentiment—hoping for potential future contentions as a sort-of anticipatory solution to their discontent.

A Critique of Desert, CD

The illusion of hope fills both reviews. Although, this illusion is not of having hope, but of seeing it where it isn’t. The most that can be said about Desert’s specific judgements about the future is that there will be, “of course, unimaginable weirdness.” This is not described as being a weirdness that one looks forward to; the author is merely engaged in an exploratory exercise that concerns itself with possibility. Talking about the future does not necessarily mean that we are always committed to whatever predictions we might be making. Even if we are fairly certain about our predictions, our lives and our happiness don’t have to be contingent on their realization.

The future is always only a vision, i.e., a hallucination.

Deserting Hope?, AL

Imagining the future as a fantasy or daydream, instead of as a possibility to be hoped for, can certainly be a worthwhile anarchist exercise. I can create other worlds inside my head, tweaking and changing them to suit my every fancy; their existence is completely intentional and creates no expectations or assumptions about future reality. My fantasies give me an enormous amount of pleasure and satisfaction, as well as making my desires more clear to me. There are many ways of relating to one’s fantasies that are, indeed, deluded. Believing in their inevitability or longing for their realization both seem to muddy the water and prevent one from living in the present as expansively as possible. Instead, I name my fantasies and daydreams for what they are and indulge them so long as doing so gives me pleasure; the problem only arises when we mistake the dreams for reality.

The future should not be allowed to foreclose on today, even if today is foreclosing some possibilities in the future. No future is worth living or fighting for that is not existent in the present.

Desert, Anonymous

Desert strikes me as a playful imaginative exercise with the purpose of bringing others in on the game. Rejecting global everything, it argues that the question ‘how do I live my life?’ might be more worthwhile than ‘how do I save the world?’ It asks us to abandon our longing for a future that we have no capacity to create, or that we have no reason to believe in, and instead use this energy to explore ourselves, our surroundings, and, if one chooses, others. Most interestingly, Desert challenges us to rethink our understanding of anarchist subcultures. Perhaps these complicated networks of individuals are best equipped to adapt to whatever the future might bring. Within them, there might be the capacity to widen the cracks in the concrete, that allow us to live out our wildness more expansively. All of this is only possible to the extent that we are open to new ways of relating to our desires, to each other, and to circumstance.

These are all sentiments that the egoist in me is very friendly towards.

I, with the author of Desert, abandon hope and despair but choose to leave the future where it is: in my imagination as a conscious fantasy. I thank the author of Desert for providing me with more fodder for my daydreams. I will continue to navigate this peculiar narrative of mine with all the information I have at my disposal. The Desert around me will sometimes allow me to see into the future so that I might prepare accordingly; other times I will be forced to ride the dunes of complete uncertainty. Either way, I will spend my time playing in the sand—all the while trying to remain indifferent to any particular outcome.

A Critical Review of Anarchism & the City

Note from author: This review was orphaned from another anarchist magazine. I had sent Dr. Ealham a draft to give him a chance to respond to the criticisms I made and rectify any misrepresentations. Rather than responding in a spirit of criticism, he took grave offense to my notation of his academic connections and the government funding of his research, threatened legal action, and threatened to contact the magazine to prevent the article’s publication. Subsequently, the magazine in question stopped responding to any questions regarding the review.

If you would like to contact the good Dr. to let him know what you think about threatening to talk to cops, suppressing the publication of criticism, or being an academic who poses as a comrade and lives off the struggle, you can contact him through his university home page.

Chris Ealham
Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937

Chris Ealham’s Anarchism and the City is a fascinating book that builds on the tradition of urban history, most notably realized in Mike Davis’ innovative work on Los Angeles, City of Quartz. But Ealham’s method is distinct; as he maps out the development of his topical city—Barcelona between 1898 and 1937—he builds a tension, chapter by chapter, by lucidly alternating between describing the strategies and countermeasures of the diverse elite centered in an array of political parties, business and paramilitary formations, and those of the proletarian inhabitants centered in the CNT and numerous affinity groups or criminal gangs, as they fought for the city, from above and from below. In this way, Ealham not only brings the struggle alive, he also frames it strategically and tactically rather than deterministically. He draws on a voluminous base of primary and secondary sources in Catalan and Spanish to portray a nuanced and detailed history.

While history has historically been biased in favor of ruling class needs and perspectives, not only do Ealham’s sympathies lie with the baser sort, his telling emphasizes proletarian illegality and counterviolence as an important libertarian force in the battle for the city, that flows directly from the impossibility of living under the hyperexploitation the Catalan bourgeoisie inflicted on the largely immigrant population, crowded into slums, obliged to work in their factories or to wait and rot as part of the pool of surplus and precarious labor. Simultaneously, he presents the alternating bourgeois strategies of law and order, and what should most accurately be called socialism (socialized or at least state subsidized housing, medicine, education, and welfare, on top of a class-antagonism-ameliorating engineering of the social landscape) as attempts to extend social control while underwriting capitalist exploitation, and always backed by a measure of brutality and violence. As a result, the reader takes pride and joy in the accomplishments of the robbers and assassins who stick it to their oppressors, while wincing at every new attempt of the cops, bosses, and politicians to steal the city and crush the new communes that have sprung up, at least as latent ideals, in the very bosom of urban oppression.

We are treated, thus, to a Barcelona in which impoverished workers and tramps flaunt bourgeois norms in the bars and cabarets, subvert the limitations of their meager housing by converting the streets into their living rooms, and win their bread by robbing the payrolls or sacking the shops, while politicians of right and left connive and bicker, trying to establish the best balance of fidelity to or autonomy from Madrid, that will allow them to stem the tide of revolution while also monopolizing the exploitation of the local workers, swinging back and forth between Spanish military dictatorship and Catalan autonomy.

Only in this context can the CNT be understood in depth, and Ealham does a great job of portraying the Confederación as a heterogeneous labor organization laid atop and integrated into neighborhood and criminal networks that propagated it and sheltered it when the going got tough. At least in certain years, it would be fair to suggest that the CNT was not primarily a labor union, and that at the very least a great part of its strength flowed from largely informal neighborhood networks. This theoretical conjecture makes me wish for a similar study of the IWW, because it seems to me that at its strongest, the wobblies were a network of tramps and direct actionists, and the organization was recuperated commensurate to the instilling of union discipline (think, for example, the central body’s decision to renounce sabotage in response to government pressure).

Another good feature of this book, a concept not invented by Ealham but one he uses effectively, is the analysis of “moral panics” (regarding sanitation, crime, lower class violence, lack of labor discipline, street culture, and other phenomena) communicated by the media as a tool to unite conservative and progressive elites and demand their common recognition of a perceived threat to social control. From this analytical device, one can infer how competing factions of the elite can encode a public discussion of mutual interests and establish a common basis for differing strategies of public order, while also training the non-elite and the aspiring elite to view society in these terms (which would not be possible in a conspiratorial or secret conversation that explicitly discusses exclusive elite interests); furthermore, one sees how the media, well… mediate, building consensus or at least solidarity between competing elite factions.

There were also, naturally, some elements of Ealham’s book that I dislike. Before discussing these, it’s necessary to make a disclaimer. It should be assumed academics will usually play a role of recuperation in social struggles. If it was the priests who were put up against the wall in Barcelona, 1936, a violence Ealham rightly justifies, it will be the academics who would have cause to fear a similar fate should a revolution occur nowadays. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise that I found so little in Ealham’s book that warrants strong criticism.

The first concerns a topic that only constitutes a detail in his work: sexism in the CNT and the proletarian culture. Fairly enough, he criticizes the CNT and the grupistas (those who acted in affinity groups, sometimes under the aegis of the Confederación, sometimes independently) of sexism. However, perhaps forgetting that the proletarian neighborhoods and the CNT were also made up of women, and these women were not passive victims of circumstance, he fails to explore the other side of this sexism. Mujeres Libres barely warrant a mention, and this only incidentally to their participation in the demolition of a Barcelona jail in 1936. Their newspaper, their propaganda efforts, their debates with the male CNT leadership, the literacy classes, childcare, and combat training they provided, are not mentioned.

In mentioning that the affinity groups that carried out expropriations, bombings, revenge killings, attacks on the police, and other actions, consisted almost entirely of men, Ealham evidences an erroneous view of patriarchy as a static, strictly conservative structure that can be overcome through the equalization of participation in the traditionally masculine sphere; in other words, liberal feminism. But just as patriarchy persists in a world that includes women in government and the workplace, women’s struggles are alive in traditional, gender conservative societies. Ealham himself points out how necessary women were in supporting these struggles, though he seriously undervalues that role: “their involvement was almost exclusively of an auxiliary nature.”

The clandestine and offensive activity of the anarchists would have been impossible without the people, generally women, passing messages; hiding, tending, and feeding fighters; gathering and carrying intelligence; storing supplies; mobilizing community opinion; stonewalling the police, and much more; just as it would have been impossible without the people, generally men, pulling the triggers or driving the getaway cars. As such, it is inaccurate to say that these affinity groups consisted exclusively of men. To do so is to take the sexist-inflected stories of those men, who also considered support activity to be an auxiliary rather than primary function, and inscribe it as objective history. But community support is in fact the sine qua non of guerrilla struggle.

Ealham also displays what in my mind is not a sufficiently anarchist feminism when he indicts the anarchists for not closing down the brothels once they had taken over the city, as though sex workers were passive victims waiting to be rescued by the syndicalists. An investigation of who owned and managed the brothels and how this changed in 1936 would have been much more interesting. What I happen to know from my own historical explorations of this city is that in the neighborhood of Raval, many sex workers were powerful social actors. In the “Tragic Week” insurrection of 1909, it was a respected neighborhood sex worker who led the charge against the Raval police commissary, liberating the comrades arrested the day before.

My biggest complaint against this book is its affinity towards democratic and institutional forms. Ealham consciously enters into a strategic debate regarding the use of insurrectionary and illegalist strategies, making a number of open criticisms. While his text is by no means the undertheorized and dishonest hatchet job so frequently produced by the critics of insurrectionary anarchism (e.g. Black Flame) he does commit a number of errors and contradictions.

For example, he fairly debunks the critique that the FAI, at its outset, constituted a vanguard (in reality they sprang from the grassroots to prevent syndicalist politicians from taking over the CNT and leading it to reformism). Just as fairly he opines that before 1936, the Nosotros affinity group within the FAI had come to exercise disproportionate power. Yet even at this stage, the evidence does not bear out the assertion that they constituted a vanguard. They failed, in fact, to steer the assembly that made perhaps the most crucial decision in the CNT’s history: to form the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias along with the political parties, or, put another way, to form a government. Garcia Oliver vehemently opposed the decision, and Buenaventura Durruti sat on the fence, but the assembly overwhelming sided with Diego Abad de Santillan, the anarchist economist who was eager to mobilize state power to impose an anarchist economic model. Ealham repeats the contemporary allegation that Oliver wanted to create an anarchist dictatorship but doesn’t mention that it was Abad who succeeded, partially, in creating an anarchist dictatorship. Oliver, oddly enough, was astute in his arguments, though his megalomania soon overcame his principles and he subsequently accepted a post in the government.

Ealham is dead wrong when he states that the CNT “simply ignored” the Catalan government at this historical juncture. The Catalan President Companys’ personal notes confirm the reality on the streets: if the anarchists had only ignored the government, it would have disappeared, for it had become powerless after workers’ militias defeated the fascist coup attempt. It was the CNT that resurrected the government, by accepting dialogue with Companys and then by joining the Central Committee (which would have been powerless without CNT-FAI participation) alongside the UGT and Catalan leftists, who had already proven themselves as lackeys and cops during their previous stints in power, and the POUM, a tiny cult following the teachings of the Butcher of Kronstadt (and an organization that Ealham repeatedly praises, oddly enough).

Following its collaboration with the new antifascist government, the CNT-FAI instituted a pseudo-anarchist dictatorship in Barcelona, which Ealham accurately depicts without a hint of the romanticism most of us usually fall prey to. While documenting many of the anarchist accomplishments in Barcelona starting in July 1936—some of them organized by the Confederación, most of them arising spontaneously—he also points out that the CNT-FAI used its power in the new government to introduce compulsory unionization, and argues (more radically than many non-academic anarchists) that “the acceptance by the CNT-FAI leadership of a productivist ideology aimed at maximising war production seriously undermined these initiatives and resulted in continuing workplace alienation.” Neither does he omit the story of Josep Gardenyes, one of several illegalist anarchists who continued to fight capitalism after the July revolution, and who was detained and executed by CNT-approved patrullas.

While not withholding the dirty details, Ealham does not offer any theoretical explanations for why the institutional forms created by the anarchists lent themselves so easily to alienation and repression, except for a meager complaint that CNT delegates were not immediately recallable and the organization was not “genuinely democratic”. In fact, given the frequency that Ealham accuses the illegalist anarchists of “elitism,” and his claim that Nosotros and the other affinity groups dominated the union, all but the most careful readers might blame nascent CNT authoritarianism on the presence of illegalist elements. But the political trajectory of Nosotros and the FAI, even though both of these groups were moderately or completely illegalist in their origins, cannot be competently used as evidence of the consequences of illegalist or insurrectionary strategies. As Carles Sanz put it in his history, La CNT en Pie, which came out subsequent to Ealham’s work and thus was unavailable as a source:

This simplistic analysis is the one that has characterized the majority of historians, converting the history of the CNT into a history of good ones and bad ones, depending on the stance of the analyst. It’s certain that different currents existed, as they always have, but this labelling doesn’t always work. Thus, we see the sectors considered to be moderate defending very anarchist principles depending on the circumstances, repression, conflicts and clashes with the bosses, and, on the other hand, extremist anarchists assuming organizationalist and syndicalist postures [my translation].

It is Ealham’s evident preference for democracy and institutionalization that prevents him from offering any coherent explanations for the CNT’s self-defeat. Democracy always ends up with leaders and popular withdrawal. That can’t be covered up with faults in personal biographies or structural trifles such as the lack of a mechanism for immediate recall of delegates. Democracy ALWAYS subverts its own mechanisms. This is in the nature of democracy. For example, Federica Montseny (one of the pro-government camp) was arbitrarily put in a position of leadership in a way that subverted democratic mechanisms already in place in the CNT. If the CNT constitution enabled the immediate recall of delegates, would that really have made a difference if, in the circumstances of July, the delegates were independently appointing new delegates, or deciding to collaborate with political parties, in contravention of their constitution, in an assembly not called through the appropriate channels?

It is fair to point out that informal, decentralized rebellions nearly always lack the initiative to go further and act strategically, but what this problematic requires is a solution far more original than Ealham’s desire for a “revolutionary institution” “capable of channeling the revolutionary energies against the state.” The CNT was this institution, and it was the linchpin in the obstruction of the revolution. It was the grassroots that expropriated, that took over factories, that made barricades, that made the revolution, and the CNT, which had once cultivated such activity, that blocked it as soon as it had won access to power, and he’s bemoaning the lack of revolutionary institutions?

A fair critique of the anarchist failure should certainly have an organizational component, but greater organizational democracy is an unrealistic proposal. At multiple points in the book, Ealham expresses a latent critique of democracy. What his book is missing, more than anything, is the maturation of this critique in a theoretical realization that democracy in government and “genuine” democracy in social organizations have the tendency and the ability to interface, creating a link or a mutual understanding that opens the door to recuperation.

Ealham’s strategic critiques, however, are reserved mostly for the insurrectionary or illegalist anarchists. While Nosotros, as a group, deserves a great deal of criticism, and while the Catalan anarchists generally deserve Ealham’s criticism regarding their failure to show solidarity with the Asturias uprising of 1934, his other criticisms, and his constant attempts to belittle their frequent rebellions, are unfair. On multiple occasions he uses the state repression that followed attacks and attempted insurrections as evidence for the weakness of those strategies. But everyone knows that stronger repression is the inevitable companion of stronger struggles, and to signal repression as evidence of failure is poorly disguised defeatism or pacifism (one in the same, after all). The illegalists, the affinity groups, the CNT, and the anarchists generally all survived the multiple waves of repression. In fact, by July 1936, they were so strong Companys acknowledged them as the only power in the city. Evidently, the existence of repression is an incoherent counterargument, especially in this case, since the anarchists from margin to center survived this repression and came out winning.

At one point, Ealham suggests that the aggressive strategies of the anarchists were a throwback to insurrectionary ideas, which he brackets as a 19th century phenomenon, and dismisses as incapable of withstanding the new repressive capacities of the State. Yet it was the union form that proved itself outdated on the level of repression, and the affinity groups that were most resilient (a fact that Ealham elsewhere acknowledges, and that the historical record bears out). For example, the police were unable to infiltrate the grupistas, given their tight security practice and massive neighborhood support. Whereas the affinity groups operated clandestinely during democracy or dictatorship, and thus continuously developed their security practice, the CNT often suffered breakdowns in their decision-making procedures when they had to transition to clandestinity, as multiple anarchist historians have pointed out.

When the CNT had to go underground, it was the affinity groups that kept it alive, funded, and combative. Ealham claims that other, unnamed revolutionary groups funded themselves during periods of repression without recourse to robberies, thus the expropriations were not necessary, but the fact is, in Catalunya at least, there were no other organizations as large as the CNT that provided as much support to workers and prisoners as the CNT did. The only other organization that could hold a candle to the CNT was the socialist UGT. Are they the anonymous “revolutionary organization” that survived the military dictatorship without carrying out bank jobs? Well, they got donations from the petit-bourgeoisie, and this funding is reflected in their politics and their practice.

Ealham contradicts himself when he portrays the illegalists as “elitists” and claims that “the insurrectionary tactic had only really triumphed among a small section of the middle and upper leadership of the unions”, or when he describes mass village uprisings supported by insurrectionaries in Barcelona as “putsches.” This is Ealham at his most dishonest. Fortunately, he’s also a good historian, so he himself sets the record straight (although in coded terms, so that only a careful reader can notice the contradiction), by describing the massive popular support the affinity groups had in the neighborhoods, the generalization of illegal tactics beyond self-described illegalists, the setting up of barricades—in July 1936, May 1937, and many occasions before that—as a grassroots or spontaneous activity, and the multiple mass uprisings, such as the one in Hospitalet, that were the antithesis of elitism.

It is the democratic bias that alleges direct action to be elitist and assemblies to be egalitarian, and I long for a day when anarchists will leave this tired old lie for the authoritarians rather than repeating it themselves. Any but the most superficial analysis of what constitutes an elite would require that for an affinity group using direct action to be elitist, they would have to use fame or martial capacities acquired through their exploits to take over a preexisting hierarchical structure. Direct action tactics and affinity groups on their own are incapable of generating such hierarchies. Democratic institutions, on the other hand, are imminently capable of generating hierarchy. If it as exaggeration to say that assemblies tend towards manipulation, at the very least they are highly susceptible towards it. Revolutionary experiments and anarchic societies that have been most successful at preventing the development of authority tend to be those which have overlapping and redundant rather than centralized and unified decision-making spaces. It was the CNT which provided this very unity, that during most of its existence served to bring together the Barcelona working class, foster a sense of common identity, and potentiate solidarity, but once the organization had amassed the power to force the State into dialogue, that effectively harnessed and smothered the revolution.

Ealham frequently tries to minimize the accomplishments of the insurrectionary strategy, while simultaneously providing the information that disproves him. When syndical methods (mass protests and strikes) won an intermediate victory in February, 1936, he trumpets that “mass syndical pressure succeeded where the grupistas had failed, the rejuvenated CNT unions securing the return of many of the workers victimised after the ‘revolutionary gymnastics’ to their former workplaces.” But this episode comes after a whole list of victories won by the affinity groups. Furthermore, it’s a strawman: the affinity groups evolved, as Ealham himself documents, to deploy a set of tactics that would complement, not replace, other tactics such as strikes and protests.

To mention one last example (of many), Ealham casts doubts, without any real content, on the effect the insurrectionary anarchists had in preparing workers to defeat the fascist putsch. While the affinity groups were not the only ones to procure weapons before July 1936 (CNT-organized committees also snatched a number of handguns from night watchmen), they were the principal ones to use these weapons, to develop the competence and the courage to go on the attack, and to spread heroic examples throughout the entire society that they could attack and win. It was Nosotros that led the assault on the crucial Atarazanas barracks, and the Woodworkers Union, one of the most radical and supportive of the grupistas, that held the barricade on Paral·lel, preventing a military column from reinforcing the soldiers at the port. With the storming of the Sant Andreu Arsenal, these constitute the three most important military engagements that defeated the fascist uprising in Barcelona. How the years of armed struggle that came before this, including the repressed and failed risings, didn’t play a decisive role, cannot be logically explained, because the proposition is totally incoherent. Ealham can only offer the hypothesis that the struggle was “greatly” expanded through the participation of the Trotskyist POUM (even though the POUM was a tiny organization which at that time was militarily insignificant); presumably this growth in popularity was won by a more pluralistic, mass, non-“elitist” democratic CNT.

In this context, it is not at all unfair to point out that Ealham received academic grants from the Catalan and Spanish governments for researching this book. Subsequently, it becomes necessary to ask what is the State interest in sponsoring a history of anarchist struggle in Barcelona (note that the book came out in Spanish and English). Spain is one of the few states in which anarchism can not be entirely removed from the official narrative, because Spanish and even moreso Catalan history would simply not make sense without the anarchist struggles. These struggles still survive today, intervening significantly in popular responses to the ongoing economic crisis. Some of the same strategic debates that were relevant one hundred years ago are still hotly contested, and it is in these that Ealham intervenes, weighing in on the side of institutionalization. It would be unfair and dishonest to suggest that anyone who sides with the syndicalists against the insurrectionaries is a State tool: particularly the brands of insurrectionary anarchism that have flourished in Barcelona deserve a great many criticisms, while the anarcho-leaning labor organizations deserve at least some credit for potentiating social conflict. But what is historically obvious is that democratic, mass organizations distancing themselves from illegality and waiting for the “right moment” have consistently been a vehicle for the recuperation of struggles by the State. By weighing in sometimes underhandedly on the only side of the debate that will ever receive government funding, and without developing even standards for a nonpartisan critique, Ealham neglects his responsibilities.

It’s necessary to point out that the dispensation of academic grants is a mundane and nearly automatic affair, but the role of academics in elaborating alibis for the State is also a commonplace, and grants are one of many mechanisms that continuously bind academics and their production to the longterm needs of State and Capital. It is not a question of unethical or opportunistic academics succumbing to employment pressures and incentives, but the exact opposite; given the banality of evil, only the most valient and rebellious can rise above their institutional position and subvert the role assigned to them, although this subversion is not black and white but a matter of degrees.

On the whole, Ealham has subverted his role and, through this book, challenged dominant histories and developed theoretical tools for an anarchist approach to history. But where he intervenes in the contrived debate between insurrectionist/illegalist and syndicalist/mass organizing, he has coincided with State interests in constraining the historical repertoire of acceptable and effective forms of struggle. This error is compounded by the factual errors or logical contradictions he commits in the advancement of his argument.

The recent success of May Day in Barcelona (2011) demonstrates the potential of complementary struggles along the anarcho-syndicalist and insurrectionary lines, as well as the great popularity of insurrectionary tactics. Histories that portray the latter as an outdated peculiarity prone towards elitism and incapable of withstanding repression not only parody themselves, they also polarize people into camps and make occurrences like this year’s combative and popular May Day protest less likely. Histories that promote democracy and institutionalization miss out on the great mistake that has haunted anarchists in the Spanish state, in 1936, and again in the period of 1976 to 1980, a mistake that repeats itself on a smaller scale even today, and one that is encouraged in the State’s own portrayals of the past.

Nonetheless, it was an easy mistake for Ealham to make. Crediting the failings of the Barcelona anarchists to the excesses of “revolutionary gymnastics” is common enough among historians, even if this view is unnuanced, contradictory, and prejudicial; the most famous of the revolutionary gymnasts were extremely flawed individuals who personally deserve the critiques that are generalized upon the strategic currents for which they serve as avatars; furthermore the prejudices of our culture conflate democracy with liberty and direct action with tyranny.

Despite this blemish, which really only concerns a minor part of the book, Anarchism and the City has a lot to offer, not only by giving English-speaking anarchists an important and exciting part of our collective history, but by showing better ways to think about history, how we arrived at the present moment, and the contest that will shape the contours of our world well into the future.

Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937, by Chris Ealham. 263 pages. Oakland: AK Press, 2010.