HABLANDO DE INSURGENCIAS SOCIALES. Contribución a la crítica de Arditi a Zizek

“Las insurgencias son necesarias por sí mismas, son necesarias para el desplazamiento de marcos cognitivos.” Benjamín Arditi.

Por Miguel Méndez

Palabras Claves: Arditi – Zizek – Neoliberalismo

“Las Insurgencias no tienen un plan. Son el plan. Mediadores evanescentes y política viral 2011”  se denominó la disertación que el martes 8 de Noviembre, el doctor en Filosofía Política, Benjamín Arditi presentó en el Salón de  Eventos de la sede de Postgrado del Rectorado de la Universidad Nacional Asunción, durante su breve visita a la ciudad de Asunción. El mismo actualmente reside en Londres.

Benjamín Arditi es autor de: “La sociedad a pesar del Estado”, “Adiós a Stroessner”,  o los más recientes “La política en los bordes del liberalismo: diferencia, populismo, revolución, emancipación” (2010) y “¿Democracia post-liberal? El espacio político de las asociaciones” (2005).

Un artículo del filósofo lacaniano-marxista Slavoj Zizek aparecido en el London Review of Books el 19  de agosto pasado, es el disparador de la crítica que presentó Arditi aquella noche.

El artículo referido de Zizek es “Ladrones del mundo, uníos”[1]. El nombre del trabajo es un guiño a la obra de Karl Marx, el Manifiesto Comunista, pero también es el título de una canción  de  Morrisey, líder del grupo de música pop británica The Smiths.

ARDITI CONTRA ZIZEK

En el artículo referido, el esloveno  hace un análisis de las insurgencias civiles actuales que surgen a lo ancho del orbe, desde los disturbios en Londres, en el Magreb africano (Egipto, Túnez, Jordania, Siria, Yemen), España, Francia y Grecia.

En él, manifiesta Zizek que la debilidad de estas protestas es que son: “incapaces de transformarse en un programa positivo de cambio sociopolítico”.

Esta conclusión de Zizek es la que Benjamín Arditi refuta, utilizando como base epistemológica la teoría de los Actos de Adler. Se remonta Arditi, a la obra “En defensa de Causas perdidas”[2] del mismo Zizek para finalmente referirse al tema hegeliano de “la Perdida de la Perdida”, con lo cual estas insurgencias estarían luchando por algo que no saben qué es, pero que presumen que lo perdieron. Para explicar mejor este concepto hegeliano se remite entonces a la experiencia de los movimientos sociales y políticos del Paraguay de los años 80 que lucharon por una sociedad justa, democrática e inclusiva. Atributos societales que esa generación nacida en dictadura, nunca experimentó. Se refiere luego al desencanto que se vivió en la época de la transición. Con Zizek, Arditi coincide en la visión lacaniana -expresada en la obra mencionada- entendiendo esta pérdida como “una falta de psicodirección de la ausencia de la plena presencia de la identidad.” Pero se aleja del esloveno, al afirmar que esta pérdida – en términos lacanianos- es absolutamente positiva y gozosa.

A posteriori, Arditi hace referencia a la teoría comunicación de Marshall MacLuhan por la cual “El Medio es el Mensaje”, teoría que explica como un medio por su sola presencia modifica el ambiente y por lo tanto produce un mensaje. Insiste Arditi: las insurgencias son necesarias por sí mismas, son necesarias para el desplazamiento de marcos cognitivos.

Para el cientista político paraguayo, estas insurgencias son importantes más allá de su debilidad programática; sostiene que estas insurgencias “pues son como el hoyo por el cual cae Alicia en la  obra de Lewis Caroll, un agujero en el sistema, del cual no se conoce a ciencia cierta dónde llevará.”

COINCIDENCIAS Y DICIDENCIAS ENTRE ZIZEK Y ARDITI

En gramática, el predicado es lo que se dice del sujeto. En este sentido. Es el contexto del sujeto, su ambiente (el ambiente aludido por MacLuhan).

 En el artículo referido, ciertamente Zizek aborda el problema desde el sujeto mismo del cambio y sus circunstancias, sin preocuparse de describir mucho ese contexto, ese predicado: el Capitalismo.

Enfocada en el sujeto la crítica de Benjamín Arditi va orientada al estudio psicoanalítico y comunicacional del sujeto de cambio; tampoco hace mucha referencia al predicado/contexto/ ambiente.

Zizek se muestra pesimista respecto a los cambios que pueda hacer el sujeto en el predicado (Capitalismo, que aunque tácito en el artículo se subentiende por la formación marxiana del esloveno) Predicado con el cual Arditi se encuentra de acuerdo, pero prefiere aunar en el estudio de estas insurgencias como mensajes/medios sin referirse a los atributos del predicado, contexto, ambiente; mostrándose optimista respecto a los cambios que puede introducir este sujeto en el predicado/contexto/ambiente.

NECESIDAD DE UN MAPA PARA ENCONTRAR TÉRMINOS MEDIOS

A objeto de construir un término medio entre el pesimismo de Zizek y el optimismo de Arditi, puede ser interesante enfocar estas insurgencias según el momento histórico del desarrollo del neoliberalismo en el cual se encuentran las geografías involucradas- en este sentido las del Magreb del África se diferencian de las de Madrid, Londres, Wall Street y de las de Chile, en que estas últimas se desarrollan en los cuatro países que desde la década del 70 del siglo pasado son puntales en la aplicación de políticas Neoliberales, mientras que las insurgencias en el Magreb Africano corresponden, ciertamente a descontentos en sus poblaciones con sus respectivos regímenes (algunos incluso aún monárquicos), pero que por su coincidencia con el proceso de expansión del Neoliberalismo hacia esa zona serían ahogadas (muestra de ello ya son los primeros muertos en manifestaciones en Egipto)[3], así pues los cambios políticos acaecidos y por acaecer en el Magreb Africano, serán cambios semejantes a los que se llevaron a cabo en los regímenes militares de los ochenta en Sudamérica, cambio de administraciones para administrar mejor las periferias.

Con este mapa que diferencia entre las metrópolis del Neoliberalismo; Londres, Washington, Santiago y Madrid y las periferias de él, se puede llegar a un término medio en cuanto a las expectativas respecto a estas insurgencias ciudadanas, y así tratar de medir mejor el impacto de éstas en lo comunicacional y psicoanalítico.

Mientras las del Magreb golpean al sistema Neoliberal en su movimiento de expansión, las de las cuatro ciudades mencionadas golpean los mismos centros desde donde salieron las Políticas Neoliberales hace cuarenta años y que ahora serán puestas en marcha en el África, por medio del desmantelamiento de regímenes y autocracias nacionalistas. Los sujetos en estas cuatro ciudades son consecuencia ya del proceso que ahora comenzará en el norte del África.

Para concluir; coincido con lo mencionado esa noche por Benjamín en el rectorado de la UNA al comenzar su intervención: “2011 es uno de los años más extraordinarios que hemos vivido en los últimos diez o veinte años, en el sentido que estamos viendo cuajarse una serie de insurgencias que articulan cada vez un discurso más inteligente de las resistencia contra el neoliberalismo, y una búsqueda de moverse más allá de la representación.”

P.D: En cuanto al guiño de Zizek al tema de Morrisey, se refiere a la eterna crítica marxiana por la que el Lumpen es incapaz de llevar a cabo cambios sociales significativos, discusión teórica que enfrenta a anarquistas y marxistas y que en esta ocasión Zizek alude irónicamente, pero que merece ser discutida por los altos niveles de lumpenización (marginalidad) que produce el Neoliberalismo en sus centros y periferias.

Citas

[1] http://www.lrb.co.uk/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite

 2 En defensa de Causas Pedidas. Slavoj Zizek. Akal. 2011

 3 Una noticia provocadora que circula por la Red es una entrevista de “Democracy Now” al general Wesley Clark (R), de 2007, el general señala que alrededor de 10 días después del 11 de septiembre de 2001, otro general le dijo que ya se había tomado la decisión de atacar a Iraq.  Más tarde, el mismo general explicó que el plan era atacar a siete países en cinco años: Iraq, Siria, Líbano, Libia, Somalia, Sudán e Irán. Los cambios en el Magreb Africano coinciden en la situación geográfica con este plan militar mencionado años atrás por el militar referido y apuntan a cerrar el anillo abierto con la ocupación de Irak y Afganistán.

CLIP DE ARDITI EN LA UNAM

Charla sobre autonomía y emancipación del filósofo paraguayo, vale la pena verlo.


“Insurgencies don’t have a plan —they are the plan.The politics of vanishing mediators in 2011”

Benjamin Arditi

Facultad de Ciencias Políticas y Sociales, UNAM

barditi@unam.mx

(Forthcoming, Journal of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, 2112)

2011 turned out to be an extraordinary year. The clustering of insurgencies around time and geography gave a political ring to the seasons: commentators spoke of the Arab Spring, the European Summer and the US Fall. Yet many faulted these revolts for their lack of plans and proposals. I argue here that this criticism misses the point. Insurgencies are about saying “Enough!” and refusing to go on as before. They upturn the given and open up possibilities that will or will not prosper. They are political laboratories experimenting with passageways to something other to come and should not be confused with standard political practices or policy-making exercises.

In “Shoplifters of the World Unite” (2011) Slavoj Žižek characterizes the riots in the UK as a “zero-degree protest, a violent action demanding nothing”. Participants had no message to deliver and resembled more what Hegel called the rabble than an emerging revolutionary subject. The problem for him is not street violence as such but its lack of self-assertiveness, “impotent rage and despair masked as a display of force; it is envy masked as triumphant carnival”.

But Žižek then moves the conversation in a different direction. He focuses on the Arab uprisings that toppled ruling dynasties of corrupt autocrats and on the Spanish indignados who camped in public squares just before the May 2011 elections to protest against the disconnect between elected officials and the everyday life of the unemployed. Žižek is sympathetic towards these revolts but outright pessimistic about their prospects. He asks us to “avoid the temptation of the narcissism of the lost cause: it is too easy to admire the sublime beauty of uprisings doomed to fail”.

This is a disconcerting piece of advice coming from someone who wrote a book titled In Defense of Lost Causes. Why are his lost causes worth defending and others narcissistic dead ends? Why are Egypt and Spain false positives of emancipation if the lost causes he endorses fail just as unceremoniously? His criterion is whether they have a plan. The recent ones didn’t, which is why they “express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a positive programme of sociopolitical change. They express the spirit of revolt without revolution”. Their failure is the failure to come up with a proposal to replace the given. Without a plan, revolts lack the dignity of revolutions and, unless they get lucky, are doomed to become lost causes of the narcissistic kind.

This is unconvincing. Recent insurgencies brings political thought into contact with the experience of the loss of the loss, a Hegelian trope that Žižek once described most elegantly and persuasively as the realization that we never had what we thought we had lost. It is an affirmative loss, one that celebrates the wilting of a grammar of emancipation that was never there to begin with, at least not in actual uprisings: a clear alternative to the existing order comes handy but has rarely played a central role in rebellions. Their happening is already significant, as I make clear in an oblique nod to Marshall McLuhan in the title of this article. McLuhan taught us that focusing on the message or content produced by the new media is fine buy it also obscures their more radical impact, namely, that the medium is the message: the medium creates or modifies its environment and therefore changes the way people do things and relate with one another. Similarly, I argue that insurgencies from the North of Africa to New York are the plan. If they turn out to be game changers it is not only due to what they propose but because their occurrence is meaningful in itself. Their opening up of possibilities has an impact on our political imaginaries and cognitive maps. Demands, manifestos and platforms are figured out on the go and policies become significant only after the initial insurgent moment: they become the public face of movements when standard politics colonizes their insurgent thrust.

About programs and insurgencies

The insurgencies of 2011 —the Maghreb and Spain, Yemen and Syria, Chile and the indignados in Israel, New York and elsewhere— are full of very public voicing of grievances and demands. These include human rights and democracy, free and secular education, affordable housing, the accountability of financial companies responsible for the crisis, the obscenity of massive income inequality and of the lack of jobs and general life prospects for most people, or out with corrupt and incompetent politicians. It is a very public voicing of grievances and desires. You also find more poetic inscriptions of desire like in “Tahrir Tel Aviv”, “If you don’t let us dream we won’t let you sleep”, “Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean that it’s not happening”, “Nobody can predict the moment of revolution”, “We are the 99%” and “Wall Street is Our Street”. Or in “Tell me what democracy looks like —This is what democracy looks like”, perhaps the catchiest line chanted in the marches of the many “#Occupy” initiative. What you don’t find in any of these protest movements is a programmatic outline of what a future society will look like. The sense of purpose that constitutes them as communities of action is the belief that the rich and the powerful are unaccountable and that talk of social justice is a farce. They might have a desire for more structured images of a different order but, politically, the organization of the future plays second fiddle because their existence already makes a difference.

So, those who say that these revolts have no discernible proposal for a new order are quite right, except that this is not necessarily a fault or a weakness. Paul Krugman put it nicely: when one looks at something like the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York (and its subsequent replication on a global scale) “we shouldn’t make too much of the lack of specifics” because their main thrust is to change the political climate; the specifics will be filled in later (Krugman 2011). Insurgencies that preceded these had no discernible plan either. There was none in the Venezuelan Caracazo of 1989 —the first anti-neoliberal insurgency in the world, according to Jon Beasley Murray (2010)— or in either of the Water and Gas wars in Bolivia or the Que se vayan todos, que no quede ni uno solo in Argentina (“All of them must go, not a single one can stay”). The same is true of pro-democracy movements in the Mediterranean rim, Latin America and Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. They had a hazy understanding of democracy. Activists and onlookers saw it as something different (and arguably better) than what they had to endure at the time. Democracy meant that they wouldn’t risk losing their jobs, going to prison or having various parts of their anatomy beaten to a pulp for expressing their opposition to the ruling Junta, party or strongman, and the chance of feeling empowered to demand accountability from authorities. This because here and in other insurgent movements democracy functioned as a space of inscription of a variety of demands and desires. People were fighting for their dignity and their future and had no program of what would come later. Like those who participated in the revolts that made 2011 memorable, they simply wanted their voices to be counted and to reverse their fate as ‘vagabonds’, Zygmunt Bauman’s (1998) name for the chronic casualties of adjustment policies and globalization processes.

To cut to the chase, these experiences remind us that to rebel is to say “enough!” to business as usual and to disturb the given because you don’t want things to go on as they are. Their talking points about greater participation, justice or the prospect of a better life hardly count as a plan or alternative to the existing order. This is the norm rather than the exception. To think otherwise is to look at the poetry of revolts through the rear mirror of rationalist narratives.

I take the absence of programs to be what Jacques Derrida had in mind when he spoke of the promise of justice, democracy and hospitality to come, as long as we can agree that “to come” doesn’t mean that today we have none but in the future we will. This would be a passive and thoroughly religious view of the promise, something that oscillates between waiting for Godot and praying to ask a Messiah to show up. Neither does it mean that you remain clueless about what is coming our way, like expecting parents who prefer not to know the sex of their unborn child. Every epoch dreams the next, says Michelet; it tries to imagine how things will turn out. All this occurs in a polemical setting. It involves experimentation with multiple, contradictory and provisional images of thought that emerge from within and circulate among communities of action. They never add up to a model. Democracy, like justice and hospitality, are always to come in the sense that they will never cease to arrive (they have no final figure/destination). But they will already start to occur as we strive to make them happen.

To say that things are already starting to occur is not wishful thinking, an embracement of voluntarism or a variation on Humpty Dumpty’s musings: in everyday politics as in insurgent processes words don’t mean what we want them to mean and actions don’t happen because we will them to occur. When I say that things start to happen as we work for their realization I am referring to political performatives. John Austin’s speech act theory defines performatives as utterances that are inseparable from the actions they announce, like “I swear” or “I pronounce you husband and wife”. They are ritualized utterances that require specific contexts of validity —a court proceeding in the example of swearing or a civil ceremony in the case of a wedding. Something similar happens in the case of political performatives: they link stating and doing in the sense that what is sought for is already occurring within a context. Political performatives anticipate something to come because participants already begin to experience —they begin to live— what they are fighting for while they fight for it. They do so even if such experience has a precarious life outside communities of action. An activist in the “#Occupy Wall Street” movement put this very clearly with regard to their tactic of direct action: “For those who desire to create a society based on the principle of human freedom, direct action is simply the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free” (Graeber 2011).

This is the bread and butter of emancipatory politics. It also provides us with a bridge to what Žižek calls enacted utopia. I quote him: “in the short circuit between the present and the future, we are —as if by Grace— for a brief period of time allowed to act as if the utopian future were … already at hand, just there to be grabbed. Revolution is not experienced as a present hardship we have to endure for the happiness and freedom of the future generations but as the present hardship over which this future happiness and freedom already cast their shadow —we already are free fighting for freedom, we are already happy while fighting for happiness, no matter how difficult the circumstances” (Žižek 2002: 559, his italics). It is clear that for Žižek not all utopias are created equal. Conventional ones name a non-place forever stuck in the limbo of discursive purity, whereas the enacted variant tells us something about the performative layer of emancipatory politics. It anticipates something to come as people start to be what they strive to become. Žižek toys with acknowledging the performative nature of this utopia. It appears in the shift from the hypothetical “as if” of freedom and happiness to the affirmative “we are already” free and happy, even if it is a de facto rather than de jure happiness (although one would have to make the case that happiness can be anything other than de facto). None of this requires a program to describe the future or a road map to get there.

Jacques Rancière has his own take on this. He says: “Do we not need to frame a specific temporality, a temporality of the ‘existence of the inexistent’ in order to give sense to the process of political subjectivization? I prefer to reverse the argument by saying that the framing of a future happens in the wake of political invention rather than being its condition of possibility. Revolutionaries invented a ‘people’ before inventing its future” (Rancière 2011: 13). Representations of the future are not a mere afterthought, but you worry about them in the process of addressing a wrong. This is because politics begins when there is a subject of enunciation —as in “We are the 99%”, we the disenfranchised or, more generically, “we, the people”. The “people” is the name of the part that has no part, of the uncounted or of those that refuse to accept what they are supposed to be, to say or to see. They enact names like equality, liberty or dignity that have no place in the existing field of experience but could come into being in another partition of the sensible. This is what insurgents do everywhere, from Tunisia to Egypt to Syria and beyond. Emancipatory politics is about opening up new possibilities and not designing the new order. They are symptoms of our becoming other. Like rabbit-holes of the Alice in Wonderland variety, insurgencies are passageways that connect the present with the possibility of something other to come.

Insurgencies as vanishing mediators: Jameson reloaded

These passageways turn emancipatory revolts into vanishing mediators. Fredric Jameson (1973) coined this expression nearly forty years ago to account for Max Weber’s account of the role of Protestantism in the move from the pre-modern world to contemporary capitalism. A vanishing mediator is “a catalytic agent which permits an exchange of energies between two otherwise mutually exclusive terms” (78). Protestantism operated as a catalytic agent by disseminating the rationalization of means required by capitalism to flourish. But it eventually vanished from the historical scene of capitalism. This is not because people lost their faith in God or stopped going to church but because capitalism had became sufficiently entrenched to do it without the help of the Protestant ethics. Jacobinism shared the same fate. It functioned as “guardian of revolutionary morality, of bourgeois and universalistic and democratic ideals, a guardianship which may be done away with in Thermidor, when the practical victory of the bourgeoisie is assured” (78). Whether it is Jacobinism or Protestantism, a vanishing mediator “serves as a bearer of change and social transformation, only to be forgotten once change has ratified the reality of the institutions” (80).

This concept is helpful for the discussion of insurgencies. Like Jameson’s mediators, insurgencies are connectors, passageways between the existing world and something else to come. However, Jameson —as well as Žižek, who refers to vanishing mediators repeatedly in his work— focuses on successful mediators, those that do their job and then get out of the way. Both authors overlook other possibilities at work in the concept. We can reload it by including failure in its structure of possibilities. This calls for one last reference to speech act theory. Performative utterances can be felicitous if they succeed or misfires if they miss their mark. Similarly, insurgencies that usher in a different order and then vanish are felicitous mediators whereas combats for emancipation that go nowhere in their efforts to modify the field of experience are misfires. The outcome is not governed by a principle of necessity. Infelicitous insurgencies are lost causes not because they fail to plan their itinerary and destination but because their enemies outsmart them, because insurgencies implode under the weight of their internal squabbles and many other reasons. Which of them will become a narcissistic lost cause and which will have a chance of losing in a dignified manner (or even be felicitous and succeed) depends on the fortunes of contingency.

A second aspect of this reloading of vanishing mediators refers to the force of the “vanishing” in vanishing mediators. We already know that for Jameson the destiny of these mediators is “to be forgotten once change has ratified the reality of the institutions”. There’s no ambiguity in his assertion: here today, gone tomorrow and ultimately forgotten. This is a hasty conclusion. Nothing really vanishes without a trace —not the memory of a messy divorce, not the elation of victory, not the experience of missed opportunities. What is gone lingers and leaves its footprints all over the reality it helped to bring about.

Let me formulate this idea by reference to transitions to democracy, particularly the theory resulting from the study of democratization sponsored by the Washington DC Wilson Center in the 1980s. Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter (1986) wrote the tentative conclusions. They describe transitions as the interregnum —literally, as the interval between two kingdoms, in this case, authoritarian and democratic regimes— and outline the critical path or standard itinerary they will follow. Transitions begin with the emergence of tensions and divisions between hawks and doves in the ruling coalition. This reduces the chances of consensus among rulers, relaxes the enforcement of prohibitions, enables a haphazard toleration of civil liberties that gives some breathing space for dissidents and eventually triggers the resurrection of civil society. This is the moment of glory of social movements: they lead the demands for democracy because political parties are disbanded, harassed, in disarray or tolerated selectively to function as alibis for the government to claim some kind of democratic façade. Transitions end when new democratic rules are in place, political parties are allowed to operate freely and the country holds founding elections. At this point parties reclaim what is rightfully theirs —the running of politics— and social movements, having done what they had to do, leave the stage and return to, well, the social. Movements are the understudies of political parties and caretakers of politics; they step in during the interregnum or state of exception of transitions and then vanish from the political scene.

This is a questionable narrative. Movements might have functioned as the vanishing mediators of democracy but they stuck to the political stage instead of going home after they did their job. This is partly because they didn’t know they were doing someone else’s job. They simply did what comes naturally, so to speak, if you want to change a state of affairs —you either do something or brave yourself for more of the same, usually extra time with whatever autocrat happens to rule your life. Movements became fixtures of politics alongside political parties and helped to configure our current post-liberal scenario. I call it post-liberal not because electoral politics are over and we have moved on to other things but because of the weakening of two pillars of liberal democratic thought. These are territorial representation as the paradigmatic form of politics in liberal democracies and the domestic nature of all politics. The political sub-system of territorial representation (the home of parties, elections and citizen voters) now coexists with other ways and means of aggregating wills, processing demands and staging opposition. Social movements are one of those ways and means. And the physical territory of the nation state no longer serves as an efficient container of political performances or, what amounts to the same thing, efforts to reduce relations with the outside to foreign affairs and make it the business of a single actor, the executive branch of government, have failed. There are political players above the governmental level (multilateral agencies and the various bodies and agencies of the United Nation) and, more recently, players below the governmental level (transnational, cross-border activism carried out by domestic actors). Just look at the planetary dissemination of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which in turn was inspired by the Egyptian insurgency and the iconic role of Tahrir Square as a rallying point for rebels.

This refusal to be forgotten is not an accident in the otherwise normal working of vanishing mediators. Things vanish, but rarely without a trace. Far from having a relationship of pure and simple exteriority between mediators and the outcome they facilitate: mediators invariably contaminate that outcome. Like in the example of social movements, they are more than midwifes of a mode of production, a regime or a new conceptual structure. They contribute to shape the scene they help to bring about and are therefore operators of constituent power.

The aftermath of unplanned revolts

I draw three inferences from this discussion. The first one is obvious. Insurgencies in Egypt and Spain as much as the “#Occupy Wall Street” movement in the US and elsewhere might be lost causes but we can’t peg their failure to the absence of a script. Failure will be a contingent outcome of their actions regardless of whether they have a plan or not. So even if Žižek is assuming the role of a Cartesian evil genie, he won’t trick them into believing they are nothing as long as they think they are something.

The provisional status of insurgencies

Secondly, the events that supercharged 2011 might turn out to be episodic and fade away with the return of the repetitive rituals of politics as usual. So what? All insurgencies are episodic because emancipatory politics is not a perpetual present of revolt but something extraordinary (literally: out of the ordinary). This is why Rancière describes politics, or the practice o equality he also calls emancipation, as “the tracing of a vanishing difference” that “occurs as an always provisional accident within the history of forms of domination” (Rancière 2010: 35). People who revolt try to stir things up to pierce the continuum of history. Walter Benjamin understood this well when he said that insurgencies aim to disrupt the time of domination, which is why he was so taken by the image of French revolutionaries shooting at the clocks of the towers of Paris: it symbolized the desire to blow up the continuum of history which is the history of oppression. Michael Löwy (2005) updates this Benjaminian trope by reminding us of something that happened in 1992, when many countries were preparing to celebrate 500 years of Columbus’ arrival to America. O Globo, Brazil’s largest television and communications conglomerate, installed a digital clock on the rooftop of its corporate headquarters for the countdown to 12 October. The indigenous population had nothing to celebrate and shot arrows at the clock to prevent it from further registering the history of their submission.

The point is that the insurgent moment is episodic. This is the common fate of the more recent experiences of indignados, from Egypt to Spain to the various “#Occupy Wall Street” movement. The occupation of public space gives visibility to a cause that defines itself on the go and functions as both an energizer of sympathetic voices and as a catalyst for public opinion. In the cases I’ve discussed, the occupations have contributed to include inequality, economic injustice, corruption, impunity, and the deficit of participation and accountability into the public conversation. It is in this sense that I said that insurgencies are their own plan in a direct allusion to McLuhan. They dislocate our lived environment. Occupations, as the most visible trait of these insurgencies, and the general assemblies they make possible, are rarely permanent ways of being of a movement; they eventually fizzle or morph into different forms and instances of collective action. It is not that insurgencies become standard politics, as if their manifest destiny was to become a government. This would establish a continuum between emancipatory revolts and the running of a new status quo. There might be something of this, but I want to highlight the specificity of the insurgent moment: whether we take our cue from Rancière or from Jameson reloaded, insurgencies are “the tracing of a vanishing difference” or vanishing mediators that put the present state of affairs into contact with other possible worlds. I don’t mean this as a way of minimizing their importance but of celebrating their singularity.

The spectral remainder of insurgencies

The third consequence has to do with the way we assess the aftermath of these movements. I mentioned that the fact of their occurrence is already significant. Many of the revolts of 2011 will fail if we measure success in terms of regime change (assuming we agree on the critical mass or quantum of change required to speak of meaningful change). But even if they fail, or vanish as misfires, they will have had a spectral remainder. I mentioned this in relation to the constituent power of vanishing mediators: they disappear but leave something behind.

Sometimes the remainder is the exemplary role of insurgencies that capture the imagination of people in far away lands. They become cosmopolitan variants of what Kant considered to be the index of our moral progress: the enthusiasm that revolution generates among onlookers who are touched by the drama unfolding in the streets and express their sympathy for one band or the other. Here the taking sides can mean solidarity but also replicating the insurgent spirit they have witnessed and wish to experience themselves. After a decade of political reasoning dominated by security concerns, by the assumption that all Muslims are terrorists and by the belief that the Middle East could only export religious fundamentalism, the Arab Spring proved that events in those countries could also become an inspiration for emancipatory drives in the West. “Tahrir”, or freedom in Arabic, functions as a signifier of change that has energized dissenters all over the planet. It is no accident that the New York indignados renamed Zuccotti Park “Freedom Square” or that hand-written banners with the inscription “Tahrir Tel Aviv” appeared in the demonstrations in Tel Aviv.

The afterlife of emancipatory struggles also appears in the displacement of the cognitive maps through which we make sense of our being in community. This displacement is as material as the change of rulers, the rewriting of constitutional texts or the crafting of new institutions.

Two examples illustrate this last point. An entire generation of Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, Syrians and Yemenis grew up under the shadow of a single strongman and his cronies. They experienced a continual assault on their will to act to create what psychologists call “learned helplessness”. The mechanisms of this assault are familiar. It includes the relentless cult of personality presenting the leader as the First Worker, First Sportsman, and First Whatever of the nation together with the many forms of consent to corruption to secure the allegiance or at least the passive compliance of business, commercial, trade union and other organized interest groups. And of course, there is also the standard terror generated by arbitrary detention and torture together with the paranoia-inducing belief that resistance is futile because the ever-present eyes and ears of the police and their network of informants will eventually discover what you are up to. The goal is to make the population feel like the anguished guests in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel: the characters arrive for a dinner party and eventually find themselves inexplicably unable to leave even though the doors are wide open and nobody is stopping them. Tyrants seek to replicate this predicament by fostering the paralyzing myth of an impotent population confronting an omnipotent, omnipresent and irreplaceable regime and leader.

Insurgencies show that it is possible to undo this spell of power. They change people’s frames of reference by offering windows of possibility, the rabbit holes I described as passageways to other (this-worldly) worlds. The exhilaration of encounters among strangers in Tahrir Square who were making a difference by simply being there, and the circulation of images of that experience precipitated an enhanced connectivity between bodies much further than what was happening in the Square. People felt, for a fleeting moment, that they could touch the sky with their hands. The rhythm and direction of change can (and probably will) be subsequently co-opted and colonized by the Muslim Brotherhood, by the regrouping forces of the governing party or by a myriad or other political entrepreneur. But even when this happens, they themselves will have realized that their fellow Egyptians (like Tunisians, Libyans, Syrians, etc) are no longer in awe of power and the powerful and that attempts to reinstate an autocracy with a different dressing are fraught with difficulties. The powerful lose their sacral aura when people witness the spectacle of confused tyrants put on trial, gone into hiding or fleeting abroad with the public monies looted during their time in government. It is like the guillotining of Louis XVI: it taught the French that the body could go on living without its head and that rulers were not demigods. This is the existential pedagogy of emancipatory politics and it is foolish to dismiss it as subjective gibberish. Its lessons are likely to linger long after the effervescence in the streets subsides.

The other example takes us to Chile, a country with the highest cost of education among OECD countries after the United States and a President who openly states that education is a consumer good. High school and university students mounted a challenge to privatized education and Chileans were generally supportive of their cause, if only because graduates will start their working life with a huge debt and their parents will have to foot the bill if their children don’t find jobs. Polls throughout 2011 indicate that the approval rating for the student movement was far higher than that of the right wing president, his political coalition and even the left of center opposition. They seemed immune to protest fatigue, mounted extensive mobilizations in demand of free public education (400,000 plus people in demonstrations across the country) and occupied schools (over 600) and universities (17 of them) without worrying that this might force them to graduate a year later. They were also well versed in guerrilla theatre: kiss-a-thons for free education, a flash mob of zombies (the living dead of a dysfunctional educational system) dancing to the music of Thriller across from the Presidential palace, and a 1800 hour urban marathon —one hour for each million US dollars required to fund the education of 300,000 students per year.

The student revolt disturbed the given in various ways. It put into question the country’s political table manners, which in the post-Pinochet era construes radical political demands as memories of a long gone past, celebrates consensus and privileges the technical discourse of suited people with modest goals, professional agendas, and little passion. This is partly due to the way in which institutional discourse processed (or failed to process) the aftermath of the traumatic overthrow of President Salvador Allende in 1973. The political class tends to refrain from describing Pinochet’s rule as barbarian, at least in public. “Coup” and “difficult times” suffice, just like “The Troubles” was the euphemism of choice to describe the war in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. The adversarial politics spearheaded by students has nudged the country out of the prolonged state of exception in which it had been living for almost three decades. In the final line of Philip Roth’s novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, the analyst utters the only line of dialogue after nearly 300 pages of Portnoy’s soliloquy. He says: “Now vee may perhaps to begin, yes?” Analogies must be taken with caution, but perhaps Chileans can now pick up their history from where they left it in 1973 and “may perhaps to begin, yes?” their 1974.

Student revolts also undermined the success story that Chileans have been telling themselves for the past three decades: that the country is different, safer, more rational and better off than others because the market works and macroeconomic indicators are sound. Business-speak is prevalent across classes, ages and occupations. Its ubiquity is only comparable to that of the managerial language permeating the audit culture of UK universities, where something that is not subject to assessment is suspicious, firings become restructurings and Heads of Department line managers. Student protests in Chile served to highlight the class divisions of the educational system and its lifelong consequences on social mobility. Their stubborn refusal to back down in their criticism of privilege, exclusion and the perception of education as a consumer good contributed to strip the neoliberal economic model from the immunitarian privilege it used to enjoy. Thanks to them, questioning the market as the primary mechanism for allocating resources and rewards is no longer off the table. Their relentless criticism of the educational policies of the right wing government did not spare the left of center Concertación por la Democracia either. This was refreshing because it made consensus less of an obsession in the public mind and, at least for the time being, moved the vector of politics from ballroom dancing in Congress to dancing in the streets. Change will probably come about through the encounter of these different performers and dancing traditions.

So, whether we look at events associated with the Arab Spring or the mobilizations of students in South America and those spearheaded by “#Occupy” movements, they all have great dreams about what will come but no real blueprint of what the future will look like. They are episodic and at some point will be overtaken by the everyday practice of running the machinery of government. But when this happens, professional and occasional politicians won’t always get away with impunity because they will have to deal with the newfound taste for demanding accountability and for having their voice counted. And insurgencies will have a spectral afterlife that is anything but ethereal because it will impregnate practices and institutions as much as in ways of seeing and doing.

The materiality of this afterlife manifests itself in the cognitive shifts insurgencies generate, the learning experience of life in the streets and of discussions in general assemblies, the memories they create, the leaders that are made in the process of occupation, the subsequent campaigns and partnerships they foster and the policy changes they bring about. As always, concurrent and unborn insurgencies benefit from their inventiveness. Tactics and practices devised by activists become part of a collective political know-how available for anyone to use. They become something of a political jurisprudence that functions as a political toolbox for people anywhere. There are many examples. The use of anachronistically low-tech solutions by otherwise tech-savvy activists allowed the various “#Occupy” protests to solve practical problems. To circumvent the New York Police Department prohibition of amplifiers and hand-held bullhorns they invented the human microphone —people repeat in chorus what a speaker says so that those further away can hear too. Hence the self-deprecating reference to “Mic check!” when a speaker stood up. To allow people to voice their views on whatever was being discussed in the assemblies they designed a hand-based sign language to express agreement, disagreement, point of order or the blockage of proposals. In Syria, where the government ordered its forces to shoot at protesters, activists came up with tayar, an equivalent of flash mobs: they gathered for 10 minutes and then dispersed before the army or police arrived.

Finally, the material afterlife of insurgencies also appears in the cultural artifacts they leave behind —songs, graffiti, manifestos, pamphlets, photos, films, blogs, websites and an assortment of testimonies in the social media. Then there is the torrent of academic publications (including this one), interviews, media analysis, assessments by activists and everyday conversations trying to represent and re-signify the experience of these insurgencies long after they pass. Immanuel Wallerstein already began this exercise by describing the OWS movement as “the most important political happening in the United States since the uprisings in 1968, whose direct descendant or continuation it is” and by claiming that it will have succeeded and will have left a lasting legacy even if it peters out due to exhaustion or repression (2011). Even in failure, then, if fail they may, the insurgencies of 2011 will have had a measure of success.

References

Bauman, Zygmunt (1998), Globalization. The Human Consequences, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Beasley Murray, Jon (2010), Post-Hegemony: Political Theory and Latin America, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Graber, David (2011), “On Playing By The Rules —The Strange Success Of #OccupyWallStreet”, http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/10/david-graeber-on-playing-by-the-rules-%E2%80%93-the-strange-success-of-occupy-wall-street.html. Accessed online October 2011.

Jameson, Fredric (1973), “The Vanishing Mediator: Narrative Structure in Max Weber”, New German Critique 1, pp. 52-82.

Krugman, Paul (2011), “Confronting the Malefactors”, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/07/opinion/krugman-confronting-the-malefactors.html?src=tp&smid=fb-share. Accessed online October 2011

Löwy, Michael (2005), Fire Alarm. Reading Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’, London: Verso.

O’Donnell, Guillermo and Philippe Schmitter (1986), Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rancière, Jacques (2010 [2001]), “Ten Theses on Politics”, in Dissensus. On Politics and Aesthetics, edited and translated by Steve Corcoran, London and New York, pp. 27-44.

Rancière, Jacques (2011), “The Thinking of Dissensus: Politics and Aesthetics”, in Paul Bowman and Richard Stamp (eds.), Reading Rancière, London and New York: Continuum, pp. 1-17.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (2011), “The Fantastic Success of Occupy Wall Street”, http://www.iwallerstein.com/fantastic-success-occupy-wall-street/. Accessed online October 2011.

Žižek, Slavoj (2002), “A Plea for Leninist Intolerance”, Critical Inquiry, 28 (2): 542–66.

Žižek, Slavoj (2011), “Shoplifters of the World Unite”, London Review of Books, 19 August, http://www.lrb.co.uk/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite. Accessed online August 2011.

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~ por Editorial Ombligo del Mundo en 20 noviembre 2011.

Una respuesta to “HABLANDO DE INSURGENCIAS SOCIALES. Contribución a la crítica de Arditi a Zizek”

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