Breaking ranks: desertion as a crisis of meaning

A reflection on desertion, by Amador Fernández-Savater …

It grabs your guts and won’t let go; restlessness, a background noise, a discomfort. The thing, far from disappearing, is growing. Despite distractions, narcotics, stubbornness; until you can’t stand it anymore. And it breaks us.

In breaking us, we break; with a place, a position, a space of recognition. We flee like the plague from what until very recently was perhaps what we most desired. It became suffocation, prison, breathlessness. The body is what decides: desertion.

Society (speaking through family, friends or partners) interprets betrayal and weakness. We fail, we are a walking failure. It invites us to rest and to start again, to turn and return to the course of normality.

The deserter asks his own questions. He must, if s/he does not want to fail before society. Why abandon, leave, break ranks? Is my desertion a capitulation to the challenges of my true desire or is a new desire being born that I must listen to?

Desertion asks questions of a world that always has ready to hand all the answers, the possible paths and the tranquilizers. It interrupts the automatisms that we naively call “my life.” It breaks the scripts laid out for us by the society of the spectacle.

We desert to be able to think, we think to be able to breathe.

It is not depression, but desertion

An epidemic of depression is diagnosed everywhere. Medical reports, alarmed parents and Íñigo Errejón demand more psychologists, attention, medication. Antidepressants are already the most requested medications in pharmacies.

The pandemic was a turning point. It multiplied and radicalised a mood of lack of desire, libidinal blackout and depression. Since then, the phenomena of desertion from society have become widespread: leaving work or working as little as possible, not following political news except for the meme and laughter, not participating, not getting excited…

For the disenfranchised of tourism, the ‘return to normality’ of politics and business has something fake about it, an imposed gesticulation, a flight forward in the face of a fundamental emptiness.

The Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi asks, in his latest book, […] about the nature of this phenomenon and proposes the following interpretation: “It is not depression, but desertion.” What is an existential and political phenomenon is diagnosed and medicalised. What is truly abnormal is adapting to a sick society.

The first thing, then, is a change of outlook. Do not see desertion as a defect, but as a potential; not as what needs to be explained, but as what explains; not what needs to be resolved and settled, but what asks us questions about the life we lead and the need to introduce radical changes to it.

Desertion is not resignation, but a silent search for something different. It is not depression or dispiritedness.

Desertion is not resignation, but a silent search for something different. It is not depression or dispiritedness, but rather a separation of desire from the stressful channels (success, consumption, self-realisation) through which it circulated. It is not a flight from politics, but rather a challenge to the traditional politics that manages our lives without even asking us. What we need is to invent a politicisation that heals and a healing that does not isolate.

The deserter has lost faith. S/he is disappointed with all the promises of paradise and the siren songs. But this disappointment is made an active gesture. The deserter does not limit her/himself to bitter resignation, nor does s/he seek scapegoats for her/his discomfort, but rather makes her/his withdrawal a question: How to live?

According to Bifo, the disappointment of the deserter affects the deepest core of Western culture: the will, willpower, politics as the general will, expressed in state forms. The history of the West can be read as the ongoing substitution of figures of the will: God can, History can, technique can, reason can, the party can, the leader can, the State can…

Well, no, they can’t. No, we can’t. Changes forced by will – including revolutionary will – have only sowed more chaos in the world. Now it’s time to assume helplessness, but in an active way, as leverage.

The deserter can’t take it anymore. But by abdicating from the promises of the will (“if you want, you can”), something different opens up, between power and powerlessness, between illusion and cynicism, between waiting and despair. The deserter finds a new compass in sensitivity. Unlike will, sensitivity does not aim at control, but rather at greater receptivity: an openness, availability and attention to the world, to become friends with things and beings, instead of seeking to dominate them.

While the West is incapable of assuming the decline of the will, the decline of the paradigm of control and the failure of politics to change a world that is too fast and unpredictable, the deserter starts from her/his exhaustion, but learns to know-do/make with the non-knowledge and non-power, seeking to weave sensitive alliances with the forces of the world instead of the violence of impositions.

The exhaustion of the will is not depression, but desertion from an entire paradigm and way of life.

Desertion as a landing

The French online newspaper Reporterre, linked to environmental struggles and movements, has recently published an extensive report on the phenomena of desertion in the country.

It all starts with a precious act of interruption: at the graduation ceremony of the institution AgroParis Tech, a large technical school of the Ministry of Agriculture, eight students denounced their degrees and invited their classmates to abandon “destructive jobs” and to join the new ecological movements. It is necessary, they said, to open up a different “historical path now,” a new direction for the planet.

Doubts about one’s own work spread everywhere: Who or what to work for? Where to put your own talents and abilities? The desertion, which was born as a gesture of breaking with military discipline, is now directed against a new war: the war against the living, through the mobilisation of all existing knowledge and resources to sustain ways of life that prey on the earth.

The desertion that Reporterre describes is conscious, strategic and organised. Know its reasons and its purposes. Deserters have a very sophisticated discourse, they set up meetings to exchange knowledge and experiences, they prepare materials (guides, references) that can be useful to other deserters.

But this desertion is also a politics of questioning: How can we not cooperate with the system of destructive production? How can this gesture of non-collaboration be materially sustained? How can one remain open to society and not create new impotent ghettos? How can desertion  be expanded and made easier for those who do not have the means?

Mathieu Yon, who abandoned his job to establish himself as an organic horticulturist in the Drôme area, explains in a very powerful testimony that desertion involves first of all working on oneself. Each person must find their own “feeling of existing”, their unique and singular relationship with the world; strongly rooting one’s own perception and one’s own body materially, stopping from seeing and seeing oneself based on the false stories that circulate.

Faced with the generalised dematerialisation of life through screens, faced with the homogenisation of desire in this supposedly individualistic society, Yon speaks of desertion as a landing: finding ways to unfold one’s own feeling of existing, through which “the body burns in contact with the real”, without damaging the earth. “The most difficult thing,” says Mathieu Yon, is “to hold your breath, your fire, to stop telling yourself stories.”

The challenge of desertion is not the moment, but the continuity and duration: how to inhabit the world as deserters?

The desertion that walks

Is desertion a gesture only suitable for the privileged? That is, for those who can afford to leave a job, a position, a place of recognition? Is it only a “radical gesture” accessible to citizens of the global North?

One might think so, but the Argentine writer Diego Valeriano finds desertion in the life of the margins of the city of Buenos Aires and dedicates a kind of tragic song to them in his book Deserción, inclusión y muerte.

Valeriano was a popular street educator in the peripheral neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires, but he too was overcome by discontent. His task was unbearably welfare-oriented, unequal, instrumental. “Social work”, highly scripted, automated and bureaucratised, offers social inclusion to street children in exchange for robbing them of all their vital energy.

That overwhelming and wild vitality of the children is what moves and disorients Valeriano. Those who have the least, of whom the least is expected, are actually the most alive, those who best know how to get by with nothing, those who have the most wealth – of complicities, of practical knowledge. They are the only ones who could survive a zombie apocalypse.

Children desert the state machines that assist them at the price of suppressing their autonomy and freedom of movement, of extinguishing their spark and its grace. They sometimes defect through silence (“silence dodges psychology, charity, the police. It makes them invisible”), sometimes through passivity (“learning to avoid promises that are only good news for the one who promises”), sometimes through dissimulation (“they maintain their own space of movement, but they play certain games to continue walking”).

Inclusion hurts; to go to workshops, to accept shitty jobs, to be a slave to the subsidy. Inclusion chokes and burns. “Get in line very early, fill out the form, download the app, speak the dead language of state employers, move according to their times, to lower your head.” To be included, for these lives, is to accept to become again a procedure.

One deserts to walk. The children move, wander, drift. They escape the norm-time, the classroom-time, assisted and judged. They learn to get around all those who stop the movement: police, bureaucrats, aesthetes of the poor; all those who attenuate and mutilate the powers of walking, of sharing, of adventuring.

One walks among friends. The bond between the deserter children and Valeriano is friendship; informal, egalitarian, non-vigilant. Friendship is what is needed to sustain the desertion from the norm-life: a love detached from control, without judgments, without inquisitorial questions, without the need for explanations; friendship and not charity, vertical solidarity, or assistance.

Among friends, understanding is sought. The desertion that walks is a way of continuing to ask questions. Not educated, speculative questions, formulated with one’s head, with their citations and bibliography, but questions from the guts, formulated with one’s feet, taking risks. “Walk together to understand what life is, not their life, that dirty life that we already judged in advance, but life. This is ours, everyone’s, the one we don’t understand.”

Difficult desertion in the south of the global South: too intense, too exposed, too precarious; unsustainable, destined not to last, but which leaves on bodies the marks of a “true life” experienced in walking together. That is what is finally “understood without understanding” between friends and that Valeriano speaks of in this explosive book.

Desertion as dissolution

And in Spain, are there signs of desertion that we can notice, listen to, attend to?

A statement comes into my hands from an anonymous group of anthropology students who sign themselves as Komum. The title already provokes one to read it: ‘La antropología en disolución/Anthropology in dissolution’.

They tell me that they distributed it on the first day of the recent annual anthropology congress trying to destabilise some of the automatisms of this type of academic event, to open up space for other questions.

The text is simultaneously written with a mixture of aggressiveness and tenderness; a tenderness that rejects, a rejection that embraces. A tone very different from that of the classic manifestos of avant-garde groups: without superiority, with doubts, full of humour and irony. The text itself is presented as a tag, an ephemeral and moving gesture, changing and inhabited by contradictions, which does not want to last or become a monument, but rather to provoke something here and now.

The text begins, again, from disappointment; with the promise of anthropology, of social sciences in general, of knowledge and critical knowledge, moreover. We must stop fooling ourselves and telling ourselves tall tales: the potential of all of them has been neutralised in the clamp between the market, the academy and abandonment, in the adaptation of knowledge to the logic of profit, in the lie of morally pure discourse of academic scientism and the terrible option for boredom and indifference.

The text speaks of anthropology, from within which its authors are engaged, but its scope is general: it can touch and challenge all of us who make words a way of life and wish that ideas become dangerous again. There is no outside; there is no utopian alternative to the clamp between market, academy and resignation. How then can one live inside and against? How can one resist through language, against its communicative and academic flattening (social networks and papers)?

Komum‘s proposal is to truly reach an END; to radicalise the exhaustion of the social sciences and accelerate their end, with the conviction that this dissolution will release the potentialities captured by its institutionalised form. Anthropology is to be killed so that its powers revive; dissolution as desertion.

How is this dissolution to be carried out? Through the encounter: “The encounter has always been the anthropological practice par excellence. Paradoxically, it is time to rescue it, to put an end to anthropology.” This is an encounter in equality, against the separation of the subject (who knows) and the object (known); the  encounter of all those disgusted by the extractive practices that make of the worlds studied means of career and business advancement; the encounter as a complicit friendship between deserters: a wager, a shared journey, without guarantees. The text is a call to encounter.

Neither from above nor from below

In recent years, change has been attempted from below, concentrating and deploying energies from squares and streets. An attempt has been made from above, entering the closed spaces of professional politics to modify laws. Both attempts have run into serious limits.

In its only apparent stillness, desertion is a way of continuing to look for ways out of a dead-end situation; neither from above nor from below, but through the crack; without illusions to sell, nor surrenders to abide by. The first thing is a discomfort in the body: a tremor, a wavering of sense; then a rejection: a slight movement, a distancing; finally, the possibility of another journey: a walk together, a new friendship.

“I only know that I don’t know anything,” said one of the first deserters of whom we have news. That never stopped him from seeking encounters, conversations, from continuing to wander about, asking questions; the friendship that understands everything without understanding anything.

Published with ctxt, September 2023

The lundimatin collective has an excellent collection of published articles and interviews with “deserting” engineers. For those at ease with french, we share a few of these, for further reflection.

Paul Platzer, “INGÉNIEURS EN FUITE: Reconversion individuelle ou lutte collective?”, lundimatin#285, April 26, 2021.

“DÉSERTION SANS TRANSITION: Entretien avec Romain Boucher, ingénieur déserteur”, lundimatin#286, May 4, 2021.

Olivier Lefebvre, “LES PENSEURS DU VIVANT, LORDON, ET LA QUESTION DE LA TECHNIQUE”, lundimatin#312, November 8, 2021.

“DÉMISSIONNER, BIFURQUER, DÉSERTER: Rencontre avec des ingénieurs”, lundimatin#344, June 20, 2022.

“SORTIR LES INGÉNIEURS DE LEUR CAGE: Un lundisoir avec Olivier Lefebvre”, lundimatin#396, September 25, 2023.

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