The Recuperation of Authentic Outrage

By Ian Hinson and Aydin Jang. Originally posted here

The victory of the Trump campaign, and the catapultic rise of the alt-right movement from the shadows of the internet into the mainstream political paradigm, has stimulated a mobilization of opposition, and an immediate call to action. However, the specter of performative activism and pseudo-outrage continues to blur the lines between genuine action and specious placation.

As noted in Internationale Situationniste #9, the S.I. appropriately identified the neutralization of revolutionary strategies, concepts, and images, for the purpose of emptying them of their subversive content, thus making them compatible with mainstream, bourgeois culture. They formulated this process under the concept of recuperation. Media culture absorbs and diffuses radical ideas as a way to create a homogeneous plane of discourse, in which even the most mutinous of societal critiques are brought under the dominant space of acceptable discussion. In doing so, not only are the proponents of these revolutionary concepts forced to struggle for control over their own definitions, but the revolutionaries themselves are effectively dragged into the realm of their own repurposed concepts, in an attempt to retain coherency and an ideological relation to the general public. The S.I. go on to point out a few notable examples of this process of recuperation:

From Khrushchev to the priests, socialism as a concept has been given the richest variety of contradictory meanings ever consolidated in one single word. Unions have undergone such transformations that at this point the most effective strikes are those organized by the members of the privileged classes, as evidenced by the Belgian doctors this year. Not even anarchy has been spared, as one can tell from the “anarchist opinions” of the pro-Chinese Mr Siné and, even more so, by the anarchist opinions of Le Monde libertaire

Acting in accordance with capital’s need to exert its dominion over nature, it also extends its domination over the domain of language, and over the realm of acceptable expressions of outrage. One needn’t look any further than the outpouring of protests and demonstrations which have materialized over the past few weeks for an example of this subsumption of the limits of radical outrage, with millions participating across the globe in a show of solidarity to those affronted over the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. Multiple sources have stated that the “Women’s March” in particular, was the largest demonstration in Washington DC’s history, and while the ability to organize such a massive gathering of bodies is quite impressive, one must ask how effective this demonstration actually was at conveying its message. Moreover, what exactly is the praxis of these types of demonstrations, and why were the small glimpses of authentic outrage so universally condemned by the media, and similarly by the liberal stratum who made up the majority of the protest’s population? To put it simply, liberal activism can be described as that of an empty signifier, that is to say, it acts as an imitation of the radical activism in which it seeks to replace. It creates a stage for the general public to try on the mask of the political radical, while at the same time allowing for the members of the privileged classes to direct this performance by redefining what radical action actually looks like.The political radical in the sphere of mainstream discourse is no longer the black bloc creating a cacophony of kindled police mobiles and broken windows. The political radical has been recodified as the football star who kneels during the national anthem, or the movie star who gives an apathetic, detached speech during an awards show. The political radical no longer sees action as an instrument to realize systematic change, action is reduced down to means with no end, where the demonstration is a statement and nothing more.

Herbert Marcuse discusses the disarming of political action in his essay Repressive Tolerance:

Thus, within a repressive society, even progressive movements threaten to turn into their opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game. To take a most controversial case: the exercise of political rights (such as voting, letter-writing to the press, to Senators, etc., protest-demonstrations with a priori renunciation of counter-violence) in a society of total administration serves to strengthen this administration by testifying to the existence of democratic liberties which, in reality, have changed their content and lost their effectiveness. In such a case, freedom (of opinion, of assembly, of speech) becomes an instrument for absolving servitude.²

What Marcuse sets out to illuminate in this analysis is not only the ineffectiveness of bourgeois activism to actualize systemic change, but also how this type of activism is metamorphosed into action which exculpates the oppressive class for their exploitation. Opposition via political activity reconciles itself with the status quo through its own existence. It contains itself within the limitations of the very system it seems to resist. “It is the people who tolerate the government, which in turn tolerates opposition within the framework determined by the constituted authorities.” It is thus apparent that the dominant forms of activism represent not a subversive expression of dissent, but as an implicit consent to be governed.

Engagement in activism constitutes an intervention within the space where politics and everyday life intersect. In this way it reflects the totalitarian nature of a democratic society, which controls the totality of life by appearing as the controlled object. In reality, of course, it is the individual whose life becomes co-opted by the machinery of the state through their own supposed participation in its process. This is the principal contradiction that the modern activist continuously and quixotically struggles to overcome. The politicization of human affairs is a component of the greater social phenomenon of alienation, as people act to strip themselves of autonomy through ritualized self-exploitation.

Politics function to a great extent on an abstract level, an intangible expression of the tangible violence of the state. It is a representational system, distorting images of the world by design. The public discourse that arises from this system is a reflection of a reflection, a second degree of non-reality. The rupture of this elaborate funhouse is seen through an act of physical violence, a refusal to engage in the maddening “dialogues” that form the basis of the mainstream consensus. With continued complacency, and an acceptance of this image of reality, that image becomes actualized. This series of relationships and social processes that constitute this spectacular construction becomes the manifestation of reality itself because it is understood that it is the totality of observable reality. The mystification of these spectacular aspects place them at the center of the social world. Guy Debord examined this phenomenon in his Society of the Spectacle:

The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification. As a part of society it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness. Due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness, and the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation.³

We can see that this mask obstructs a clear view of the reality of society. The “politeness” of modern governance works to produce a societal consensus, one which inverts the truth of objective conditions by presenting helplessness as autonomy, coercion as accord. The maintenance of this phenomenological project is one of the most pressing issues of late capitalist modernity, as the intensification of crisis creates fissures in the objectified worldview.

It is this consensus which the activist, consciously or unconsciously, seeks to reproduce and perpetuate. Activism, as a by-product of capitalist democracy, is the art of manufacturing appearances. What is more important is to display anger, to compress it into a viewable form, rather than to actually act upon it. In the age of social media, this spectacular method can be virtualized and magnified, further diluting whatever emotional message was originally embedded. Activism is both an asocial and social affair, generating crowds that perform mechanistic demonstrations of indignation, brought together by an empty non-message. The deception of such crowds is that they are not so much crowds, but collections of individuals who are more focused on transmitting expressions of false personal investment to each other. The protester does not march towards any specific goal, but to engage in the act of marching itself. Expressive activism (protest politics) is the realization of the theater-form within our social world.

Consider the broken window, universally condemned as a product of “senseless violence”. Destroying a window attacks an ideological barrier as well as a physical one. The normative discourse of our society is one of simulated inaction, concealing brutality within pacifistic rhetoric. To subvert this false language and reveal its true nature is to speak the more “primitive” tongue of physicality. The burning limo and the smashed shopfront are not de-rationalized because they accomplish nothing, in fact the very opposite is true. They symbolize a death of passivity, posing an existential threat to the political mindset. This is why the puppets of the old order must denounce them as acts of insanity.

The limits of rational activity within a sphere of society are set according to the dominant narrative at play. For this reason, riots are depicted as the wrong way to dissent, that is to say, actualized resistance is an improper form of resistance. Violence is not sophisticated, they proclaim, the-pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword and so on. Once again, this returns to the very simple contradiction of democratic governance, that of representation versus content. Such a system can only survive by embracing its own contradiction, pursuing violence with greater theatrical flair, the imposition of a terroristic peace. Activism is only an expression of helplessness in the face of this terrible force. The ideological constraints reproduced by the activist are a consequence of state power, and only reinforce it, despite appearances.. As such, political performance is an expression of the cyclical nature of society’s administration. The perpetuation of the democratic ideology allows exploitative relations to produce the conditions for such an ideology to take root.

To point out the danger explicit violence poses to this system is not to say that the fracturing of a sheet of glass is such a momentous occasion. Breaking a window does not blow away the millions of police and soldiers and all their guns. Such an act does not practically undermine the state any more than a peaceful march does. Political violence faces the same problem that political debate does. The attempt to exert pressure and to force demands onto such a powerful entity is like screaming into a deaf ear.

It is violence as a form of action, in its movement beyond structure and symbolism, that threatens the present order. It bypasses the activist’s struggle to overcome the contradiction of their own work, and lays bare the foundations of the capitalist state. Beyond the political, lies the potential for a reconstitution of the human, if only we can cease to reproduce the conditions of our own oppression. It is only when it tries to overcome the state, rather than shape it, that any sort of resistance transforms itself into revolution.

References

[1] “Words and Those Who Use Them” Situationist International Online. Web. 09 Feb. 2017.

[2] Marcuse, Herbert, and Wolff, Robert Paul. Repressive Tolerance. Berkeley, Callif.: Printed by the Berkeley Commune, 1968. Print.

[3] Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1977. Print.

Communism and the national question

Communists must move beyond the same old phrase mongering and critically look at the national question. 

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US imperialism must be defeated through global communist revolution for national oppression to be abolished.

The national question is one of the most controversial debates within the field of marxism. Whether one agrees with the Austro-Marxists, Kautsky and Lenin, or Bukharin and Luxemburg, it is undeniably a complex question. One could say that we need a better framework for understanding the national question in an era of decolonization of global US imperialism. In this piece I’ll attempt to sketch out an outline as to how to best approach the spectre of nationalism.

The national question refers to a series of arguments, all which generally seek to address the question: What is the best way to end the inequalities between nations? As Communists, we ultimately aim for the abolition of the nation-state in favor of a worldwide community of humanity, where the social conflicts that create national oppression have been eradicated. This is a vision that pretty much all actual communists accept. Yet the aspect of “how we get there” has often meant either making concessions to nationalism (like the Marxist-Leninists) or essentially ignoring the problem of national oppression completely as if communist revolution will make the political reality of national oppression take care of itself (various left communists).

The position I am arguing for is not going to base itself on the principle of “self-determination for nations”. While sometimes self-determination is appropriate to take up as a slogan, it entails that nations as such have an inherent right to a vague notion of self-determination. What defines a nation is a product of collectivities that are cross-class in nature, as national identities are socially constructed in a way that calls for a unity that transcends class conflict. In other words nations are bourgeois projects, and saying that they have an inherent right to self-determination (which can be defined in a way making it open to abuse) is not feasible to uphold as a principle if one wishes to do away with the bourgeois order.

This is not an argument that the revolutions of national liberation were not historically progressive and that the world wouldn’t be better without colonialism. Colonial oppression itself made proletarian organization very difficult with its attacks on democratic rights and enforced economic backwardness. While it is true that the national liberation revolutions were not proletarian movements that led to socialism of any kind, they did establish important democratic rights for many nationalities. However what resulted however was not an equality of nations, but what some have called “neo-colonialism”. I prefer to call it simple what it is, which is capitalist imperialism, based on the hegemonic military power of the USA and its allies in the world which allows it to regulate the rules of global capital to their benefit.

As long as the world is organized in a hierarchy of competing nation states where some are more powerful than others and able to dictate their interests upon weaker states through sanctions, trade deals, proxy wars, etc. there will be an inequality of nations. While many national liberation revolutionaries were aware of the problems of the the national bourgeoisie, they sought the Stalinist plan of “socialism in one country” as an answer to this problem. By existing as autarkies in the capitalist system nations could opt out and produce a system where the state “served the people”. Yet the promise of autarky can hardly live up to realities of the global imperialist system, especially after the collapse of the soviet bloc. Hence attempts at socialism in one country as a form of national liberation have been returning to market systems and cooperating with US imperialism (Cuba, China, Vietnam).

Therefore one cannot separate the problem of abolishing capitalism from the problem of abolishing the world system of nation-states. This entails going beyond the form of the nation state, which is not accomplished by national-liberation revolutions or socialism-in-one-country. We aim for the worldwide cooperative commonwealth, where all of the world’s people are able to fully flourish as individuals to the maximum capacity. This means ending the “war of all against all” that results from the competition for resources between humans, hence a central world government that can make economic and political decisions at the world level. We want a system where as much of humanity as possible is united in a common process of planning its social reproduction. Therefore it makes sense to prefer larger, centralized bodies as opposed to secession and balkanization. Continental, and then World, republics that unite as many nationalities as possible should be our aim. And of course we should build Communist Parties that prefigure this vision.

The “right to self-determination” essentially is promising something communists don’t actually want to ultimately deliver on, because our aim is not national independence but internationalist cooperation. Yet what if a national grouping, with a historic legacy of oppression from a state undergoing revolution, aims to secede from a broader socialist republic? Can they simply be invaded and annexed by the workers state?

My initial answer to this is no, as it would simply be a form of “red imperialism” where communists are complicit in furthering a historical legacy of national oppression. While some secessionist movements are clearly reactionary and should be ruthlessly crushed (like if white nationalists tried to form their own state in the Pacific Northwest) we have to deal with each movement according to its specific historical and immediate circumstances. For example, if revolution happened in the USA and Puerto Rico chose to secede, would invading the population be ok? As Communists we believe in basic republican equality – that no one group has an intrinsic right to rule over another group. Because of this we aim to destroy the world hierarchy of imperialist states and end all forms of national oppression, an action like annexing Puerto Rico would go against these basic principles. One does not need to believe in the “right to self-determination” as a principle to agree with this but simply the principle of national equality between peoples.

Yet if we do believe (like all marxists should) that class contradiction in the end will be more decisive than national antagonisms then it would expected that workers in a state seceding from a workers republic will eventually revolt against the national bourgeoisie. As Communists our job would be to aid these workers and agitate for international communism, essentially pursuing a “foreign policy” of promoting international revolution in the workers movement, arguing for class independence from the bourgeois nationalists and pushing for world-wide cooperation through communism as a solution to the problems of class society. This could go as far as arming and sending in international brigades to help workers overthrow a corrupt government, which would not be some equivalent to imperialist interventionism but an express of class solidarity beyond national borders.

To promote co-operation, Communists must recognize the democratic rights of oppressed nationalities and fight for them, for example the right to participate in civil society in your own language. We must prove that communism is not only economically superior, but also politically, that people will not lose their rights and culture if they are a part of the workers republic. While obviously this shouldn’t mean conceding any basic rights seen as universal, the historic oppression of national groups needs to be addressed in a way that doesn’t reproduce great-nation chauvinism like the Stalinist USSR.

Ultimately it will be through a process of cultural exchange that is unprecedented in history that a new world culture that whithers away nations will be developed by worldwide social revolution. Cultural exchange where all are equals in a human community that wouldn’t be tainted by xenophobia would would see a world where national distinctions become more and more irrelevant, a world without borders where humans do not own land but are ensured to have access to housing and basic needs. Communism can provide this; nationalism cannot except perhaps in undesirable forms of “barracks socialism” which have their own class distinctions. A world party, where communists of all nationalities coordinate the revolution, will act as a preparation for the kind of international cooperation needed for communism.

My aim here is not to find a one size fits all solution to the national question, but rather to provide an alternative way of thinking about national rights that does not rely on the notion of “right to self-determination” which is often simply means “the right for the bourgeois to rule”. Communists must push for class independence from nationalists of all kinds, first and foremost those of their own nation. As Karl Liebknecht said, “the main enemy is at home”. It is important to promote the notion that the workers movement in all parts of the world must pursue class independence from the national bourgeoisie and not get caught in promoting anti-imperialist fronts with various military dictators and bonapartists. Yet as revolutionaries in the USA, the main hegemon of imperialism, our primary aim is to promote the defeat and removal of US forces in all cases of intervention. We must uncompromisingly take this position, especially in an era where imperialist agendas are presented under a “humanitarian guise”. The historical track record shows US imperialism is not progressive in any way but rather contributes to the scale and deadliness of global conflicts. So even if the idea of “exporting democracy” were morally justifiable, it would fail regardless. Democracy today (the real kind that puts power in the hands of the proletariat as opposed to the liberal-constitutionalism of the US gov) can only come through the organization of the proletariat regardless of nationality.

Hopefully I have brought clarity to some of the issues at stake in the national question rather than just indulging in the same old phraseology common among marxists. The 20th Century showed the difficulties that nationalism of many varieties posed to the communist movement and the role they played in its failure. So addressing nationalism is no small task. My hope here is to spark some debate and polemic with comrades on the topic that can help us move into a more programmatic approach from the typical leftist phrase mongering and displays of moral righteousness.