The power of the anonymous: Santiago López Petit

We publish below, in translation, an essay by Santiago López Petit of the Espai en Blanc collective.  Originally published in 2010, it remains a central text in Petit’s and Espai en Blanc’s reflection on contemporary politics, or their failure; in turn, this is a collective that has produced some of the most important theoretical political work in spain over the last years, as well as being involved in some of the more creative forms of political activism (e.g. Dinero Gratis).   Other essays by Petit are available on the collective’s website, as well as electronic editions of the Espai en Blanc magazine and the more recent political/artistic intervention under the name El Pressentiment, which we have had occasion to share.  The term “disoccupation” of the title we have kept.  It suggests “emptying”, “evacuation”, “leaving or exiting” and is a call for a type of agency that is not bound by a means-end logic, by an instrumental rationality.   The french term “désoeuvrement” (“non-operational”) as developed and conceptualised by philosophers such as Maurice Blanchot, Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben could also serve to draws parallels. 

And what if we ceased to be citizens? Manifesto for the disoccupation of order

We are addressed as citizens

Today the citizen is no longer a free man.  The citizen has ceased to be the free man who desires to live in a free community.  Political consciousness, which is not taught but is conquered, has slowly disappeared.  It could not be otherwise.  Public space has been converted into a street full of shops open at all hours, into a television program in which an imbecile tells us in detail of why he separated from his wife.  School, for its part, is not obliged to promote any critical consciousness, but rather the mere learning of “correct” citizen behaviours, variations on a supposed “education for citizenship”.  Political struggles seem to have themselves disappeared from a world where there are only victims of catastrophes (economic, environmental, natural …).  And yet, when the politicians address themselves to us, when they fill their mouths with their calls for participation, they continue to call us citizens.  Why?  Why is the word maintained, while little by little it has been emptied of all political force?

Before all else, it is because the identity of “citizen” fixes us to what we are.  It makes us prisoners of ourselves.  We are citizens every time that we behave as such, that is, every time that we do what corresponds to us and what is expected of us: to work, to consume, to entertain ourselves …  To vote every four years in truth is not so important.  It is through our behaviour, and from day to day, that we breath life into the moribund figure of the citizen.  And, then, a life is conceded to us.  The citizen is he who has his life in property, more precisely, he who knows how to manage his life and render it profitable.  In the last instance, someone who fails socially is not an authentic citizen, he is a second class citizen.  And this is not even to speak of the undocumented immigrant who can only be a stigmatised shadow at our service.  To say citizen means to say to believe.  The citizen is not he who thinks, it is he who believes.  He believes in what power tells him.  For example, that terrorism is our principal enemy.  Or that life was made to work.  In the end, it is he who believes that the real is reality, and to it one must adapt oneself.  It is however difficult to believe in a reality that at times breaks up: we have to be workers and there are no jobs; we have to be consumers and what is sold are empty gadgets; we have to be citizens and there is no public space.  The citizen has therefore perfectly understood that to move about successfully, that s/he must be guided by the old publicity slogan: “look for, compare, and if you find something better … buy it”.  He is not a cynic, he is a sad figure with no internal fire.  To be a good citizen one has to be above all restrained.  To abominate excesses.  To condemn all kinds of violence.  And so when our politicians speak of the citizen, they always emphasise his maturity and in this they all strangely agree.  Because the citizen, in sum, is the fundamental element in the “democratic” (“lo democrático”) and the “democratic” is, today, the most important form of control and domination.

From democracy to “the democratic”

The understand the central role played by the figure of the citizen, we cannot remain at the level of what has always been called democracy.  Democracy, to the extent that it assumes the State form and ceases to be “the least worst kind of government”, as we have so often been told, necessarily undergoes a complete transformation.  To account for this transformation, we propose a shift from “democracy” to the “democratic”.  In the same way that C. Schmitt once proposed to move from politics to the “political” and in this way opening up a new way in which to approach the question of politics, we believe that it is today doable to carry out something similar with respect to democracy.  If the very defenders of “true” democracy must add to it adjectives to be able to characterise it (participatory, inclusive, absolute …), then the situation is now ripe to pose its criticism.

Democracy, as we said, is no longer a form of government in the traditional sense, but a formalism that makes possible global mobilisation.  Global mobilisation would be the project inscribed in neoliberal globalisation, and as such, would consist of the mobilisation of our lives to (re)produce – simply living – this fully capitalist reality which is imposed upon us as plural and unique, as open and closed, and above all, as the irrefutable force of what is obvious.  A reality which crushes us because in it is made real, in (almost) every place and in (almost) every moment, the same event: the flow of capital.  Well, the function of the “democratic” is to permit that this global mobilisation that merges with our very living, deploys itself with success.  With success means that thanks to the “democratic”, the conflicts that the flow of capital generates can be effectively managed, channeling expressions of social discontent, and all of this because the “democratic” allows for the abstraction of the political dimension from reality itself and thereby neutralises any attempt at social transformation.

That is why it is difficult to define what is the “democratic”.  The central nucleus of the formalism is constituted by the articulation between War-State and postmodern fascism: between heteronomy  and autonomy, between control and self-control.  Apprehended more closely, the “democratic” is constructed on a double premise: 1) Dialogue and tolerance that refer to a supposed horizontality, given that all difference is reduced to a question of mere personal opinion, cultural choice.  2) Politics understood as war which assumes declaring an internal/external enemy and that refers to a vertical dimension.  The “democratic” realises the miracle – apparent, it is understood – of uniting in a continuum what is normally presented as opposed: peace and war, pluralism and repression, liberty and incarceration.  In this sense, the “democratic” goes beyond this articulation and disperses itself, constituting an authentic formalism of subjection and abandonment.  The “democratic”, as the enabling formalism of global mobilisation, does not let itself be organised around the duality of repression/non-repression which is always too simple.  In the “democratic” can be found everything from civic norms promulgated in so many cities, to laws dealing with foreigners, as well as neighbourhood police who invite denunciation.  Or the new Spanish penal code, the most repressive of Europe, that continues to invest in simple and brutal incarceration.  The efficacy of the “democratic” resides in the fact that it configures the public space – and in the end, our relation with reality – as a space of possibilities, that is, of personal choices.  More freedom means the multiplication of possible choices, but no choice can arise on the basis of which all the other choices can be legitimately renounced.  This option that would put into question the very spaces of possibilities is prohibited.  The “democratic” is the air that we breath.  It can be improved, cleaned, regenerated, terms which are not for nothing.  Yet nothing more is permitted.  At this point, we can propose something that is essential.  The “democratic” acts, above all, as a mode of subjection – our subjection to reality – given that it establishes the partition between the thinkable and the unthinkable.  The “democratic” directly defines the framework of what can be thought, of what can be done, and of what can be lived …  More precisely: of what should be thought, done and lived as men and women who speak of themselves as free.

The Crisis came …

This grid of concepts, values and objectives, which as citizens we make our own – to be citizens is to think and act according to these lines in agreement with reality – is that which we apply to the crisis.  The crisis that symbolically begins on the 23rd of October 2008 with the fall of the Lehman Brothers Bank presents itself as the second great crisis, as a kind of apocalyptic ordeal which either we succeed in overcoming or we sink into collective misery.  We are told repeatedly that the countries that carry out the necessary reforms overcome the challenge, and that those which do not, fall to the margins of history into a kind of path with no exit.  The economic reports are for their part confused and behind an apparently great complexity what they seek is to simply place the citizen in the position of a spectator who has a poor understanding of what is happening, though collaborative for s/he has no other choice.  What is curious about the matter of the crisis is its analytic simplicity when the technical language is left behind.  The crisis transforms reality into a kind of video game in which we all participate.  That we speak of a casino economy is not coincidental.  In a video game there is a script with its bad guys and good guys … and we know that in the end there will be winners and losers.  When the German chancellor Merkel, for example, assures us that there is “a battle of the politicians against the markets” aimed at establishing the primacy of politics over the economy, she is outlining some of the principal protagonists: politicians and the State (the good guys) are obliged by the markets and the speculators (the bad guys) to introduce indispensable reforms in the game.  Ultimately there is, and this is the essential argument of the script, a kind of generalised guilt: “we have lived beyond our means”.  We are also all a little bad …

It remains surprising however that the central explanatory metaphor is of the crisis understood as a type of illness whose cure is to be found in a race forward, and failing that, to die.  Its an old metaphor that goes back to ancient Greece as is known, and which was soon incorporated in different areas of knowledge, until it arrived at economics.  But how can it be applied to global capitalism whose foundation cannot be ill, precisely because it has no foundation?  Having no foundation means that global capitalism functions through the unblocking of capital, as a blind racing forward allows, because between power and capital, there exists a mutual pushing beyond themselves.  It makes no sense therefore to accuse the speculators of being those responsible for the illness.  A professor of future speculators, concretely a professor of ethics at IESE [an international business school with campuses in Spain], said it clearly: “Speculation is essential to capitalism.  The speculators are the black vultures who carry out the healthy task of eliminating dead animals”. (El País, 23/05/2010)  Neither does it make any sense to pretend to save the State.  The State is not separated out in some species of relative angelic autonomy, but is directly linked to neoliberal globalisation.  There is no abdication of the State here, but a total implication.  The codependency of capital and power goes well beyond millionaire aid packages to failed banking institutions.

The crisis as a political operation

We could essay different explanations which, taking the above into account, raise some elements of truth.  Financial capital presumed that global space-time generated money simply with the movement of capital.  But this is not the case.  There is no global financial market capable of expanding itself in an integrated and flexible manner thanks to the growth of public investment and financial innovations.  The final result is always the same: the burning up of fictitious capital, the explosion of the bubble.  More concretely, the financial crisis situates itself this time at the level of States.  Greece was the first country to be attacked.  The operation is simple.  The banks and international financial groups newly lend money to bankrupt States – as they formerly did with the banking sector and private companies – assuring themselves of payment through austerity plans imposed and supervised by international organisations, and they can furthermore allow themselves another profit bubble through speculation on bonds that the State is necessarily obliged to emit on the international market to respond to its bankruptcy.  The crisis in its many stages, and we are summarising a great deal (mortgage and financial speculation …), continues to adopt the form of a true looting managed by authentic “white collar” criminals.  This crisis that has fallen upon us to live is not so much synonymous with restructuring, as with pillaging.  First, a sacking of those who cannot pay their mortgage or even sell their house, and who are left only with escape, as is becoming common in the USA.  Next, the sacking of salaries, of pension funds … and including the entire economy of a whole country.  The conclusion at which we arrive could not be clearer: the crisis, paradoxically, is not a moment of failure of capitalism, but its moment of greatest success.  As we begin to vacate the figure of the citizen and cease to believe in the discourse of the crisis, the crisis as such reveals itself to be a process of pure and simple expropriation of collective wealth.

The new personal contract and war

The crisis consists then of an unfavourable situation for the majority that has been politically fashioned, and which nevertheless presents itself as naturalised.  To describe it as a form of primitive accumulation of capital is in large part true but insufficient.  If the crisis, or better said, if this global crisis is significant, it is because in it – and thanks to it – a new social contract furthermore is initiated.  The new social contract is that which gives the right to participate in the global mobilisation that produces the world, more precisely, the fully capitalist reality without any outside beyond it that is our world.  The social contract that the official workers’ movement accepted and which was in operation until the end of the 70s was very clear: “social peace in exchange for money”.  After the workers’ defeat at the end of the 70s, the new social contract is completely individualised, since now it is directed at each one of us.  The social contract transforms itself into a personal contract.  Its formulation is also very clear: “life in exchange for absolute employability”.  In the global epoch, one can only live, and to live is to have a life, if the life that one has is the basis for a new way of being: the most absolute employability.  Precariousness becomes existential.  In the final instance, the new personal contract recognises you in what you are and what you can only be: (a) human capital.  The suppression of collective contracts and the reform of the labour market towards flexicurity and individual contracts points in this direction.  It is however something that goes well beyond the sphere of labour.  The new personal contract ratifies the fact that life is the battlefield because the market has overflowed the limits of the market.  However, absolute employability is not an end in itself, it is the means of achieving the maximisation of competition.  And while there is competition between everyone, there is also competition with respect to oneself.  Competitiveness means then quantitative self-evaluation so as to manage one’s own efforts and in this way maximise gains.  Reality and capitalism move closer to each other as they have never done before and life constitutes the place of their complete fusion.  How incomplete and comforting it is then to go on speaking exclusively of commodification and privatisation before a phenomenon that so transforms subjectivity as well as reality itself.

The project of modernity implied, above all else, thinking the self-constitution of a society that could no longer appeal to transcendent foundations for the legitimation of order.  This self-constitution was theorised politically (Hobbes and his social contract) and economically (A. Smith and the market).  These domains were the only ones from which – given the crisis of absolutist models – it seemed possible to defend order.  Hobbes’ social contract certainly obliged submission, enclosing moral consciousness in the private sphere, while securing life given that the State – which was rendered possible with our renunciation of self-determination – exorcised war.  The fear of death and reason motivated the acceptance of the compact.  The market for its part according to A. Smith was not only the true representation of society but also the principal organiser of a pacified society that no longer had any need for politics.  The free market based on personal egoism was capable of generating general well-being.  The new personal contract that is instituted in the global epoch would combine both models in an original manner.  The “democractic” and the market, politics and a-politicism, united in the new figure of this citizen who is her/his life as property, and it is as such that s/he is inscribed in the global mobilisation.  The new personal contract however apparently denies the objective which, both in Hobbes and in Smith, was the same: to establish a foundation for order.  Because absolute employability as a way of being, life understood as the maximisation of profit derived from it, and the concept of the “I logo”, implies permanent humiliation behind which can only be the pure arbitrariness of violence.  But attention is called for, because we have not returned to the state of nature, it is not a matter of a war of all against all.  The status of the new contract can now be further clarified.  The new personal contract is the consecration arbitrariness in its fullest sense.  What else does absolute employability converted into the very condition of existence mean?  In addition to that arbitrariness which shows itself in the form of violence (monetary, military …), power in its pure arbitrariness continues to have paradoxically a perfectly defined basis.  In other words, the foundation or principle of (global) order is war.  The global mobilisation is the war against ourselves and this war organises the world.

The citizen as the unit of the mobilisation

If it can be said that the class struggle – working class antagonism managed by labour unions – was the motor, and at the same time, the element of cohesion of industrial society, now it is war managed by the “democratic” that realises the same ends.  It is a war never declared and which never directly appears as such.  The social war that is waged against us appears under the form of economic measures, political reforms, and even humanitarian interventions … always necessary and always for our good.  War is, in the end, the name of the global mobilisation of our lives that slowly destroys us.  In truth, there is no longer an economy, nor politics, and therefore it is wrong to aim to save politics so as to be able to control the economy.  Global mobilisation, like the reality it produces, is a total phenomenon that does not permit being subdued.  The “democratic” – that together with therapeutic power directs global mobilisation – cannot be situated, however, exclusively at the political level.  Hence the figure of the citizen who continues to be the interlocutor of democratic political discourse, is also remodeled.  The citizen, forced by the crisis, signs the personal contract that integrates her/him in the global mobilisation, however the integration profoundly transforms her/him.  The (good) citizen is no longer only the one who assumes civic responsibilities and who votes, but is s/he who is ready to make of her/his life a continuous capitalist investment in the full sense of the word.  “To have a life” means to invest money, effort and time, in the management of one’s life.  To restructure oneself permanently, to not protect the undocumented immigrant, to call attention to someone who sneaks into the metro … Citizen, in the last instance, is s/he who adapts her/himself to the exigencies of reality and knows how to convert her/himself into a true part of it.  It is no exaggeration to state that the citizen is s/he who is not owner of her/his own life, but its slave.  Obviously, this change into a unit of mobilisation puts an end to any vestige of ourselves.  The “we” of working class antagonism and the “we” of the struggles for recognition, even though they have not disappeared, have been completely emptied of any future.  But their no-future is not liberating, on the contrary, it is a repetition of the already familiar.

And yet, to the extent that capital wages war on us – and waging war is intimately transforming us into capitalism – it necessarily reconstructs a “we”.  A “we” that can no longer be used in its favour to reconstruct order.  Because the “we” that is born of malaise escapes any logic of visibility, it erupts suddenly and at once hides.  If the violence since 9/11 of 2001 has been essentially of a terrorist nature, violence has been acquiring with each day an increasingly social character.  Until now, global violence was filtered above all through a State-of-war that identified the terrorist as the enemy to combat.  With the current crisis, as we have already stated, capitalism triumphs while at the same time constructing its internal enemy.  The conflict that served the purpose of order changes despite itself into a source of rumour, the rumour that the anonymous individual and her/his malaise is the new great threat.  Enemies are all those then who cannot tolerate that their lives be crushed by global mobilisation.  Enemies, finally, are all of us.  With reason, the oracle of Davos gathered in its Swiss shelter, recently alerted: “the severe economic crisis could generate violent social reactions.”  This is its great fear.  That the rumour silence the background music, that the desperation converts itself into rage.  That this “we”, in silence and at night, finally undermine the diurnal image of the citizen.  They have the day, we have the night.  The citizen that the politicians call upon to tighten her/his belt before the crisis no longer exists as such.  It is an entelechy, a rhetorical resource to vehicle a discourse of submission that contributes to prolonging the flow of capital.  The citizen has been re-made as the essential part of global mobilisation.  They address us as citizens when in truth they want us as mobilised units.  It is already time to evacuate, to disoccupy, this empty shell, this rhetorical figure whose mouth can only speak the voice of power.  As citizens, acting as citizens, we have already lost the war even before it begins.  And what if we ceased therefore to be citizens?

The uselessness of arguing

Arriving at this point, an abyss opens underneath our feet and a demon whispers in our ear, “Would you dare to abandon your own prison?”  To cease to be citizens is madness given that, if it were to come about, the whole society would collapse, someone says.  It is absurd, even reactionary, one hears in the distance.  You can say it because you risk nothing.  There are many people in the world who want to be citizens and cannot be.  To defend the citizen is to defend the welfare state.  Bla bla bla …

We could put forward numerous arguments.  Does not the impasse in which we find ourselves and the ineffectiveness of the very idea of political intervention with the aim of social transformation hide in these words?  Perhaps one would have to start with the recognition that the discourse of the left has lost all credibility, and for this reason, at the basis of these kinds of statements, nests impotence.  It is not by chance that when the left has little to give – above all because it does not know how to go beyond the categories of modern politics which are today in full crisis – it feels the necessity to cover itself with the mantle of moralisation: from a certain ethical re-foundation of capitalism to the ideology of degrowth.  And we could continue in this way … But the question remains.  In fact, all the arguments that we could present would serve for little.  Because, how can a position that is within the limits of what can be/should be thought be refuted?  To dispute it is to also fall within the prisons of the possible, to be stuck like a fly in the crystal of reality.  There is only one path: to leave.  To leave everything.  To leave the mediocre assurances that bind us, the simple truths, the doubts.  To leave the self-delusion and the propagation of error.  To leave the world.  I do not know if I will be able to leave.

I know however who leaves.  I know that there are people who leave.  “We have nothing to lose, what does it matter what we want?” is what a Greek demonstrator answered to a questioning journalist after having just thrown a rock at a police officer.  The answer recalls the well-known sentence of Marx’s Communist Manifesto: “the workers have nothing to lose but their chains”.  Change however is essential.  There is now no longer any horizon of emancipation, only the desire to destroy this reality that has become one with capitalism.  The struggle is already directly liberatory.  Someone also leaves this reality who wants to make of their wanting to live a challenge, who breaks with her/his life and sees how the insomniac seizes her/him.  They leave this reality those comrades who live with just enough to keep alive a publication that is a knife plunged in the heart of this stupid reality.  As those also leave who try to consume less, collectively.  Or those who meet to place themselves, day after day, before the abyss of ignorance.  They leave those who don’t want to be mistaken and the truth burns little by little.

Two ways of disoccupying the figure of the citizen

And with everything said, is there truly some exit?  Is it possible to play against the great game of the machine?  If to disarm the power of the machine I have to play against it accepting its rules and the space designed by it, can I really win and avoid that my victory serve the ends of the very machine of mobilisation?  In May 68, the Situationists extended the idea that power recuperates everything.  After we learned especially thanks to Foucault that power not only recuperates in the sense of using, but that it is capable of producing such interesting things as truths.  In these conditions that history does no more than confirm, can the idea of leaving, of an exit, still be defended?  Or perhaps this idea would be rather a regulative ideal that allows us to subsist with a minimum of dignity.  All of the earlier examples and the many more that we could add do not properly constitute any exit given that there is no outside to escape to.  They are different ways of facing up to existing reality.  We said that we do not want to deceive ourselves.  However, that we reject the idea of an exit in its more abstract and general form – because it obliges us to set out upon the path of impotent proposals of alternatives – does not imply that there are not concrete ways of leaving.

We do not know if a global alternative to this society will one day be realisable; what we do know is that we reject this society in its totality.  And we also know that this rejection has to be concrete since a non-materialised force necessarily erases itself.  To struggle is to invent concrete forms of departure, and if possible, collectively.  It is certainly the case that in this invention, we may lose, given that this danger is inherent in any approach to the concrete as well as to the same self-organisation of the “social”.  But to lose oneself does not have to mean to lose, but precisely the opposite.  It is only possible to cross through impotence if one is disposed to lose oneself.  To lose oneself means to abandon the security offered of being a citizen, that is, of being someone protected by a system of beliefs and values that construct reality as a tautology.  To lose oneself is therefore to escape outside the figure of the citizen.  But to lose oneself is also to know that, in this departure from the unit of mobilisation – if we desire to avoid death, madness or prison – there has to be a kind of negotiation with reality itself.  To lose oneself implies removing oneself, though very often it also entails dirtying oneself as one sinks in this filthy world.  To use in our favour the same functional logics of reality.  If there is no outside, neither can their exist purity nor coherence.  Only power can be pure power in its maximal coherence.

They leave then those who evacuate the figure of the citizen, and as we have already indicated, this can be done in different ways.  A first consists in constructing another world that is opposed to this world: our publishing, our cooperative of free software, my illness … against this world.  In the opposition between worlds, it is not the absolute correlation of forces is important, but the potential of the challenge.  A challenge that can strangely act by opposing the market to the very market or illness to health.  A second way implies destruction.  To cease to be a citizen is then to undermine the limits imposed by an imposed responsibility.  “The economy is in crisis: let it collapse!”  To ask and impose impossible rights.  Irresponsibility understood as a way to free oneself from the fear that they want us to interiorise.  The irresponsibility that is always to be found in every radical gesture when it interrupts global mobilisation, and opens a space of anonymity.  The spaces of anonymity do not organise themselves around pronouns (I, you, him …), and thus they break with any political path directed towards a social contract.  The spaces of anonymity are those spaces in which people speak and lose their fear.  In them, rhythm comes to substitute relations based on pronouns, even though there is no fusion.  To the extent that they are the expression of the desire to live, rhythm is what comes to organise space.  Rhythm is the most appropriate to life given that to live is precisely the continuous expansion of the desire to live.  When the pronouns burn and the night is illuminated, rhythm remains as that which interrupts global mobilisation.  The spoon knocking against the casserole, the fire that is ignited here and there, the scream of rage that never ends …  The rhythm that codes try to redirect.  The spaces of anonymity open before and against a public space reduced to a simple vitrine of the city.

The strength of the anonymous

What if we ceased to be citizens?  In truth, there are not two ways to disoccupy the figure of the citizen.  Construction and destruction are not opposed to each other.  In every attempt to construct, there is destruction, and the inverse.  Only from the perspective of power is the distinction always made between the violent ones and the non-violent.  To cease to be citizens is to initiate a potential of evacuation as tactic and to operate according to a strategy of transversality.  To cease to be what reality obliges us to be, that is, to cease to be this citizen – citizen, it must be recalled, is today the authentic name of the unit of mobilisation – consists in tracing a line between what one wants to live and what one is not disposed to live.  Transversality, for its part, means that there is no privileged front for struggle (for example: the sphere of work), but that combat is directed against reality itself understood as a continuum of battlefronts.  When life is the battlefield, it matters little to continue to think in terms of partial approximations.  The objective must always be the same: to pierce reality to be able to breath.  And for this, one must begin by opening up no-man’s lands.  No man’s lands that are fixed along battlefronts are the places in which to recover oneself, so as again to turn against the damned video game in which we find ourselves.  To disocupy the figure of the citizen so that the force of the anonymous that lives in each one of us can emerge.  This force that escapes because no one knows its real strength.  This force which is irreducible because it is of the desire to live.  To leave.  To leave everything while already making a world between ourselves.  To leave everything yet without killing ourselves.  To leave even the idea of disoccupation that this manifesto defends.  And what if we ceased to be citizens now?

From El pressentiment, a micro-video …

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