Revolution as Destituent Power

Only if we’re able to disentangle the future … from the traps of growth and investment, will we find an escape from the vicious subjugation of life, wealth, and pleasure to the financial abstraction of semio-capital. … the future is over, and we are in a space that is beyond the future …

Franco “Bifo” Berardi, The Uprising

La tradition politique de la modernité a pensé les changements politiques radicaux sous la forme d’une revolution qui agit comme le pouvoir constituant d’un nouvel ordre constitué.  Il faut abondonner ce modèle pour penser plutôt une puissance purement destituante, qui ne saurait être captée par le dispositif sécuritaire et précipitée dans la spirale vicieuse de la violence.  Si l’on veut arrêter la dérive antidémocratique de l’Etat sécuritaire, le problème des formes et des moyens d’une telle puissance destituante constitue bien la question politique essentielle qu’il faudra penser au cours des années qui viennent.

Giorgio Agamben, Le Monde Diplomatique (January 2014)

A tension haunts our “time of riots” (Badiou), one as old as the war against State-Capital, but which has found a recent conceptual formulation in the opposition between rebellion/revolution as a constituent versus a destituent power.

The former embodies what many would consider the very essence of the revolutionary tradition inaugurated by the modern republican revolutions of the late 18th century.  Oppressive sovereign power is opposed by a more radical, inclusive sovereignty.  The last may be qualified as national, popular, belonging to the people.  But however it is conceived, it involves the substitution of one sovereignty, judged etitist, restrictive, oppressive, by another, held to be more inclusive, universal, and therefore more just.  What lies hidden in this conflict of sovereignties is the very danger that lies at the heart of the notion of sovereignty itself; a danger that is intrinsic to sovereignty as a power of excluding, as it includes, or secures, the rights of those it defines as subjects-citizens of sovereignty.  And when sovereignty is reduced to the State/guarantor of security, when sovereignty is expressed through the contemporary police state that characterises our current condition of permanent exception, what remains then of a possible counter-sovereignty?  To oppose the power of State-Capital by openly challenging it (whether through elections, extra-parliamentary pressure, or insurrection), is not only to invite the full police-military apparatuses against the movement; it is also, and always, to potentially reproduce the forms of power that are contested.

The occupation of city squares that has so often and dramatically characterised the social movements of the last three years (Tahrir, Sol, Syntagma, Zuccotti Park, Gezi-Taksim …), or the broader taking of cities that those movements inspired (spain, brasil …), the movements, while praised for their enthusiasm, are criticised for failing to assume a political form; condemned for substituting carnival for organisation.  Whatever euphoria then that they engender is thereby fated to impotence and disappearance.  To move then beyond the riots, the movements are called upon to constitute themselves into a political subject, to formulate a program, and to assume explicitly as their goal the taking of power; a power that once conquered, can serve as the basis for the creation of a new, more democratic constitution.

South america’s Left (venezuela, bolivia, ecuador) is often held up as an example.  Of the “Arab Spring”, tunisia remains the only inspiration.  Such examples however raise more doubts than they do certainties.  And if by democracy is understood autonomous, self-managed communities, then we are far removed from democracy.

The contemporary security apparatuses that characterise modern states also render such models of liberation highly problematic.  Not only is dissidence itself rendered illegal (e.g. the Patriot Act of the united states, the spanish government’s proposed law, …), it becomes unclear where the enemy is to be found.  In our “biopolitical”, “societies of control” (Foucault, Deleuze), the enemy is everywhere, outside any opposition force, as well as within.  The classic strategies of revolution become accordingly redundant, if not self-defeating.  Indeed, the very idea of revolution, to the extent that it continues to signify an appropriation of State power by the “people”, becomes questionable.

What remains possible?  Strategies of withdrawel, retreat.  It is time to embrace fatigue, exhaustion, impotence before a world governed by force, efficiency, growth.  It is time to celebrate laziness, vagrancy, ecstatic pleasure, the liberation of time from calculation.  What paths there are to freedom would seem to lie first and foremost in refusal, in the refusal to affirm, in the refusal of the present, not however in the name of another future, but in a refusal to plan, to program, to produce.  The “hero” of our “revolution” will be a Bartelby, a Bloom, a K, the no one who was Pessoa, the man without qualities.  And these anonymous protagonists are the other face of the occupied squares and cities of our time.  Only on occasion can they be seen in acts of protest against authority.  Far more frequently, they create amidst the many work and consumer cooperatives that begin to constitute an alternative tissue for the satisfaction of human needs outside Capital.  More commonly, they occupy and claim private property as a commons.  More profoundly, they simply declare that “they would prefer not to …”



(On the 5th of January, a second, bank owned, residential building was taken in the Malasaña neighbourhood Madrid, at the instigation of 15M assemblies and the PAH’s Obra Social, in a politics of occupation that has housed over 700 hundred people in the country.  This is but the latest example of a taking back of the commons.  From the communiqué of the occupation …

We are a large family composed of people of all ages and conditions who have legitimately okupied a building for the urgent reasons of habitation and precariousness.  We are in an unsustainable situation because local, regional and national governments commit daily High Treason against the Pepole:

They lie and manipulate all information conveyed by the public media for reasons of party propaganda, they convert the Congress into a media circus beneath the dignity of a country, they dictate laws that destroy jobs, they allow that 25% of the children of Spain go hungry, they destroy public health and education, they reduce to poverty dependents, youth, pensioners, they put an end to social services and ways of access to the judicial system, and they sell houses and public infrastructure, all of which we have payed for.  …

Corrupt governments, who only act in favour of their caste, the economic elite, have obfuscated and falsified the bailout of banks, indebting and robbing the country. … The policies of the governments of Spain involve a regression to a sadistic feudalism …

We whom these governments have stolen the present and the future, excluded and abandoned to our fate, act responsibly and legitimately to cover the basic needs of life that are systematically denied us.  These governements only serve to enrich themselves and an inhuman, preying, aberrante and criminal plutocracy.

For these reasons, no other solution remained to us than to take our basic rights, those rights that have been stolen from millions of people in this country, so as to be able to create a life of dignity, in a dignified home … Hundreds of thousands of people, pushed by this swindle, will follow our footsteps to recuperate what is theirs.             

Liberating this building, we want to recuperate a communitarian spirit, neighbourhood solidarity, mutual aid, and in this way recognise and know each other in the streets.

All of this demonstrates that private property excludes the majority of people from access to goods that in reality belong to the commons; leaving many houses abandoned and uninhabited, while many of us sleep in the streets.  We demand that there be no more houses without people.  …

There will be many more legitimate okupations by housing assemblies, because “Yes we can” and “Yes we should”.)


Video of the okupation …

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