Making Friends with Failure
A Critical Response to Richard Day’s Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements
It’s nice to have a victory every once in a while. As someone who lived through the rise and fall of militant action on this continent during the last dozen years, I should know. These days, there’s something demoralizing and vaguely absurd about our habits. We issue urgent call-outs for demonstrations against even more brazen acts of injustice. We look around. We feel our hearts sink a little. But we are reminded over the demonstration PA that today is “only a beginning.” A glimmer of hope, you might say. But the tacit acknowledgement is that there’s no way for it to get any worse than this. Welcome to rock bottom. And though there might be some cold comfort to be gained from this certainty, when witnessed from the standpoint of a broken heart, it’s hard to imagine how the freedom of having nothing might ever be transformed into a program for a better world.
We adjust. We become a subculture of compulsive beginners. After all, the energy of the beginning is almost always more satisfying than the dead reckoning required by that moment in which we recognize that we can never go back. Only a beginning – we’re not building, we’re prefiguring. It’s as if, all of a sudden or once again, activism means being bound by a ritualized therapeutic injunction to perpetually return to the site of trauma. Cynics might even announce that, since we have shown ourselves to be incapable of winning the list of demands under which we’ve mobilized, the true act of courage is admitting that we can’t win. Not like this, anyway.
The secret is out. “Activism” and its contentious repertoires have become ritualized. In 2003, CrimethInc proclaimed it with usual gusto in their Inside Front: International Journal of Hardcore Punk and Anarchist Action: “We have worked hard to improve activism – now it must be destroyed!” And, again, “We activists have tried to develop a code of behavior and language that is free of domination, an alienation free protocol – but protocol itself is alienating, unless one is among those actively developing it.” We lament the fact that the movement doesn’t grow. We steel our resolve. We try to become more open, more inclusive. And even though it might not lead to active engagement from broad sectors of society, our ritual – admit it – has become comforting.
For those who live them, the dynamics of contention follow the rhythms of the seasons or of the religious calendar. They reintroduce the cyclic time of a world that capitalism left behind. The coalitions we plant today produce neither roots nor fruits but only momentary flowers before dying of chill or neglect. It is painful, pitiful. But there is no other remedy than the repetition of the act. Lather, rinse, repeat: the act becomes everything. It is therefore not surprising that some of us sew patches onto our clothes so that we can make our profession of faith to the world: “Even if the world was going to end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today.” Somehow, this religious notion from the Protestant Reformation – a notion that is often attributed to Martin Luther – has become the pinnacle of activist non-compliance with the means-ends tyranny of the logic of capitalist productive rationality. Our actions don’t have to be rational. They don’t even have to accomplish anything. They just have to be good. Good in and of themselves.
But it can’t go on forever. There’s a point when the memory of victory kicks in and taunts us, though we might try to ignore it. Images of the Paris Commune infect our dreams. N30 becomes fuel firing cylinders in the engine of a powerful myth. And so a problem arises: what do you do if you need a victory but can’t win? If you’re one of the activists that Richard Day champions in his well received book Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements,1 you change the rules of the game. Better yet, you turn your radical act of refusal into an ethical principle of the first order and remind everyone around you that you wouldn’t waste your time playing according to those rules anyway.
I’ve got to admit it’s a pretty seductive argument. Moreover, it seems to capture perfectly the spirit of defeat that hangs over these trying times. Released in 2006, the text is in many ways a eulogy for the anti-globalization movement. And it feels like seditious reading – the kind of thing that gives you a front row seat to a fistfight between delusion and the reality principle. From this vantage, it’s easy to believe that the bravest act of all is admitting that the thing we all loved is now gone. Time to move on. It’s on account of Day’s ability to combine crisp and economical writing with unrepentant iconoclasm that we can understand the remarkable resonance that the book has had to date amongst activists beleaguered by the humiliations of failure. Day’s is a New Testament. Gone are the days of hegemonic combat where we trade eyes for eyes. The days of war, whether carried out in the spirit of the lion or the fox, are over. In their place, we’re offered a vision of affinity based on “groundless solidarity and infinite responsibility.” Love thy neighbor. Turn the other cheek. Build the New Jerusalem right here in the lapses and gaps of neoliberalism’s totalizing vision.
The anti-globalization movement, which was never able to pull itself out from under the rubble of the World Trade Center, is dead. In the opening passages of Gramsci, Day admits that his personal confidence in that movement faded at the demonstration against the WTO mini-ministerial meeting in Montreal during the hot summer of 2003. Having been in the streets on that day, I can understand his dismay. What a disaster. There’s something grotesque about being outnumbered and outmaneuvered by riot cops, chased this way and that through back alleys and parking lots and then calling the whole thing “resistance.” Whatever bravado had steeled our spines at the perfunctory gong show of a spokescouncil the night before evaporated as we watched our comrades get arrested en masse outside the Librairie Anarchiste on rue St. Laurent.
For Day, however, the experience was one of liberating proportions. Notepad and pencil in hand, he stares down a riot cop blocking his exit. The cop hits baton against shield. Day hits pencil against paper. Visions of mighty pens and meager swords illuminate the scene with euphoric incandescence. And so, while “the response to 9/11, coupled with the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has dealt what looks like a death blow to the most visible expressions of resistance to neoliberalism in the global north,” things can’t possibly be as bad as they seem. “This could mean that a time of mourning is at hand,” says Day soberly, however “many do not lament the demise of this phase of struggle” (2). Why? Because the logic of protest that led such convergences as took place in Seattle, Québec City and Genoa had limited value. Specifically, while Day saw in these moments an opportunity to illuminate the barbarity of the neoliberal project, the protests themselves could not undo the logic of a system organized on the premises of a perpetual reproduction of itself. Worse, the protests – in those instances where they spilled over into the realm of hegemony – may have even managed to reinforce that logic.
The big question posed in Gramsci is Dead, then, is “now that the cops of the G8 countries are no longer surprised by direct action tactics, now that their political masters are willing to broadly adopt the repressive tactics of what are hypocritically called ‘Third World dictatorships,’ how will the struggle against globalizing capital – and the many systems of domination and exploitation with which is it is inextricably linked – continue?” (3) For Day, the answer to this question can be found in an assessment of the “deeper, broader and longer-running currents” (4) that underlie the orientation to struggle assumed by Indigenous peoples and the people of the global south. This orientation, to which Day attributes the mythic quality of being a kind of inborn knowledge that will “continue as it always has, for hundreds of years, taking a multiplicity of forms” (3), is characterized by its emphasis on affinity.
Starting in Ancient Greece and moving sure-footedly toward Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus, Day devotes considerable effort to producing a genealogical account of how currents of affinity and hegemony have evolved over time within different political traditions. However, while the genealogies Day provides allow us to understand the manner in which ideas about both polity and struggle have come to take the forms they sometimes do in the present, they do not in and of themselves explain why contemporary political actors engage in the manner that they do. After all, a genealogy can never explain how an idea becomes a material force; how it comes to saturate the air at a given moment.
This problem becomes especially evident when one considers that most of the activists in Day’s “newest social movements” are not likely to possess either his intellectual or archival facility. Since this is the case, the orientation to struggle championed by Day – one that yields “semi-permanent autonomous zones” even as it eradicates (or dismisses as unimportant or dangerous) the capacity to produce mediated means-ends correspondences – requires another explanation. This explanation can be found not in the logic of hegemony or affinity but rather in the continuing defeats of anti-capitalist hegemonic struggle and, not surprisingly, in the ongoing hegemony of bourgeois norms themselves.
But rather than investigate the concrete problems that led to such a profound demobilization of what had during the short years between Seattle and Genoa become a kind of nascent world-historical force; rather than provide a critical account of our failures so that they might serve as the basis for reassessment and rebuilding, Day chooses instead to disengage from the activities of those who have failed (because they are bound by their still incomplete break from the logic of hegemony to always do so) and point, triumphantly, to those few who have managed to win some small piece of freedom right here in the present – the crusty punks, the Food Not Bombs kids, the sleep-and-sun deprived nocturnal creatures that make indymedia.org an object of wonder. If this sounds too harsh, it is useful to jump past the book’s 200 odd pages of dusty genealogical suasion to get to the heart of the matter:
Revolution and reform have failed to produce the goods, it is true, and neither the masses nor the mass have any political potential. However, what it seems cannot ever be done for anyone at all using hegemonic methods can perhaps be done by some of us, here and now. (214)
Day is willing to admit that this argument has an elitist ring to it. However, he is unwilling to let that get in the way. Since the premise of the argument is that the logic of affinity draws its inspiration from the struggles of those in the global South, activists in the North engaged in acts of prefiguration are in fact showing respect and solidarity toward those who have paved the way. And while all this may be fine in principle, the argument – as presented – relies upon and is made possible by unscrupulous distortions and acts of glaring omission.2 And so, historical details, messy though they are, need to be addressed. However, instead of history, what Day offers is an erudite but insufficiently convincing theorization of the shortcomings of revolutionary hegemonic politics based on their identity – at the level of desire – with the politics of the system of control.
Because they share an unconscious desire to perpetuate the desire for the emancipation by extra-individual, extra-community structures of coercive power, (neo)liberalism and (post)marxism can be said to participate in an ethics of desire, a set of principles and outlooks that perpetuate a self-imposed failure and provide a cover for the abdication of the difficult tasks associated with autonomous individual and communal self-determination. (84)
Revolutionaries are just like those who maintain order in the present because both are bound by a desire to have power over others. This desire, when expressed by those who aim to change the world in the name of autonomous individual and communal self-determination, becomes a cipher through which the inevitable self-imposed failure passes and becomes invisible. Forget Rousseau. You can’t force people to be free. In order to get out of this cycle of antagonistic but reciprocal desire, Day points to the example of the movements of the global south and their counterparts amongst North American anarchists who have dutifully followed their lead. It is a celebratory and self-valorizing move.
Admittedly, Day is not the first to make it. Perhaps most memorable amongst the numerous prior instances was the post-A16 edition of CBC’s Counterspin during which an overenthusiastic Avi Lewis barely contained his glee as guest Vandana Shiva proposed that the organizational paradigm for the DC action had “a third world flavour.” Whatever one might choose to understand by such a peculiar phrase, the fact of flavour evidently did not manage to entice DC’s vast Black population to participate. Irene Tung, who was interviewed for a ColorLines article dealing with precisely this problem, provided the following striking summation:
There was definitely an insider’s culture at A16, especially at the convergence spaces. There was a vocabulary and behavior, an assumed cultural commonality, that was somewhat eerie. It seems that the ideals of absence of leadership and ‘facilitated chaos’ – as they say – function best in a homogenous group.3
Although they were supposed to be inclusive and sensitive to experiences of oppression, many activists pointed out how the sensibilities of the movement did not resonate with most of the city’s poor and Black residents. Despite being concerned with issues that directly affected those communities, DC Blacks seemed to not recognize either the viability of the tactical paradigm or the possibility that the rain soaked kids were somehow “allies.” In order for this kind of recognition to emerge, it would first have been necessary to produce a situation in which people could envision a common project in which all might feel a pressing implication. In short, it would have required a hegemonic orientation and a willingness to forge a collective “we” out of disparate, scattered, and often contradictory experiences.
As John Sanbonmatsu has suggested, politics invariably requires assertion. Rather than starting from the standpoint of an imperfectable ethic of inclusion, the task of political actors is to demonstrate – through their actions – that another option exists. And it is only on the basis of an ability to create conditions whereby others can see the common thread connecting seemingly discrete moments that politics can move beyond the processual equivalent of good table manners. Sanbonmatsu explains: “Radical pedagogy as such functions to reveal or bring to light what would otherwise remain unseen – the hidden structures of meaning and power that shape our lives – and this can only happen by revealing the whole.” This project takes the form of a general necessity, a procedure without which politics itself would be impossible.
Every so-called critical social movement seeks to reveal the background itself – that is, to make the background, as it were, become figure. For only once the background becomes figure does the perceiver comprehend that what she or he first took to be an “isolated datum” – e.g., a rape, a layoff of workers, a cleared rainforest – is in fact nothing of the kind, but rather a “moment” in a larger structure of meaning that can be known, analyzed, and potentially defeated.4
As it stands, such a political capacity is obviously not in evidence in North America, where a vast gulf continues to separate the dying fragments of a white middle class movement from the rest of the population. Prefigurative experiments, despite the pedagogical opportunities that they could in principle furnish, cannot in and of themselves do the hard work of analysis – nor can they uncover the points at which multiple grievances intertwine to form the fabric of solidarity. But you don’t have to take my word for it.
In Pacifism as Pathology, Ward Churchill advances a damning critique of prefigurative politics and the decoupling of means and ends that often accompanies their expression. In his account, middle-class North American pacifist activists are indicted for leaving the difficult and potentially costly aspects of struggle to those who are objectively least able to carry these burdens but who nevertheless do the lion’s share of the fighting in the global struggle for justice. And while North American pacifists, in Churchill’s estimation, are invariably willing to support the armed struggles of Third World revolutionary movements, they are far less willing to engage in any act that might put them in a position of having to confront the force of their opponent.
In order to get out of the contradiction, Churchill argues that these activists advance either moral or tactical arguments against the use of violence. Now on this high horse, it becomes possible for North American activists to prefigure the kind of society that people ought to live in once the business of revolution is over with. “What we are left with is a husk of opposition,” says Churchill, “a kind of ritual form capable of affording a sentimentalistic… satisfaction to its subscribers at a psychic level but utterly useless in terms of transforming the power relations perpetuating systematic global violence.”
Such a defect, however, can readily be sublimated within the aggregate comfort zone produced by the continuation of North American business as usual; those who remain within the parameters of nondisruptive dissent allowed by the state, their symbolic duty to the victims of U.S. policy done (and with the bases of state power wholly unchallenged), can devote themselves to the prefiguration of the revolutionary future society with which they proclaim they will replace the present social order (having, no doubt, persuaded the state to overthrow itself through the moral force of their arguments).5
Among the practices that Churchill includes in his list of prefigurative practices favored by elite North American activists are sexual experimentation, refinement of musical or artistic tastes, going vegetarian or vegan, unleashing the id through meditation or drug use, overthrowing the gender hierarchy by redistributing household chores, and (his personal sore spot) engaging in campaigns to prohibit cigarette smoking. “Small wonder,” says Churchill, “that North America’s ghetto, barrio, and reservation populations, along with the bulk of the white working class… tend to either stand aside in bemused incomprehension of such politics or react with outright hostility” (64).
There’s a bit of an industry of critique established for dealing with arguments such as this one. And Churchill sometimes makes an easy target of himself. Surely there is something to be gained, at the level of gender equity, in the redistribution of household chores. And while such gestures do not in and of themselves amount to a dismantling of the entire gender hierarchy, they do enable people to build trust and respect and they can on occasion allow women to participate more directly in political decision making and task-sharing. Nevertheless, the bemusement and hostility Churchill points to can hardly be disputed.
Although his list of prefigurative acts is different, Day sets out in Gramsci to describe the multiple and varied practices by which contemporary activists try to carve out spaces of humanizing autonomy: independent media centers, critical mass bike rides, squatting, and other practices are all given due consideration. However, among this list of “non-branded” tactics, each of which holds a place of prominence in the North American repertoire of action, Day inserts some unlikely contenders – like the Piqueteros, Argentina’s unemployed workers movement. According to Day, such an inclusion is justified by the fact that the Piqueteros, like the anarchists of the newest social movements, organize according to the premises of autonomy.
RTS [Reclaim the Streets], IMC [Independent Media Center], neighborhood assembly, Social Centre, Food Not Bombs, land and factory occupation – all of these tactics consciously defy the logic of reform/revolution by refusing to work through the state, party, or corporate forms. Instead, they are driven by an orientation to meeting individual/group/community needs by direct action. Not only do they refuse to deploy traditional tactics that seek to alter/replace existing nodes of power/signification, their own organizational structures are designed so as to avoid situations where one individual or group is placed ‘above’ others in a hierarchical relationship. (45).
Given this assessment, it is hard to imagine how the Piqueteros could be collapsed into Day’s vision of affinity. For, the actions of the Piqueteros are decidedly not ends in and of themselves. The point of unemployed workers blocking major roads is not to have a party or engage in an act of reclamation pure and simple. Rather, it is an instrumental use of coercive power exerted to accomplish political ends that, in the first instance, are not immediately achievable by the actors themselves. They act so that others might act as they would like them to. It is a negotiation with power based on emergent capacities, an instance of the “politics of demand” that Day derides (80).
Here, Day argues that the manner in which social movements are often set up to make demands on the state ends up perpetuating the power of the state by expecting that it will respond. In this scenario, the responses of the state end up providing the basis for a justification of its power. Following Žižek and Lacan, Day proposes that what is needed to break out of the loop of the politics of demand is a politics of the act. This politics, which is based on the Lacanian iteration of the reality principle and which demands a one-to-one correspondence between means and ends, entails the ability of “inventing responses that preclude the necessity of the demand and thereby break out of the loop” (89).
However, while the possibility of an ever-increasing degree of State control brought on by the inadvertent recognition extended by a politics of demand makes some degree of sense as an abstract model, it begins to fall apart when considered in light of examples like the Piqueteros. When approached as an historical rather than a theoretical problem, the politics of demand reveal themselves to be crucial in the move from disparate “of itself” formations to conscious “for itself” ones. Moreover, the suggestion that those who participate in advancing demands are simply recognizing the sovereign authority of the state to grant gifts denies that such demands might be advanced strategically without any illusions about administrative benevolence. In order to get a sense of this kind of strategic orientation to the politics of demand, it suffices to point to a number of Piquetero actions staged in August and September of 2004 and described by journalist Marcela Valente.
Over the past few weeks, the demonstrators have occupied ticket booths in the Constitución train station in Buenos Aires, securing a promise from the private concessionaire running that railway line to reinstate nine employees who were laid off and create 52 new jobs.
“Our goal is not to interrupt transit or make problems for the passengers of trains, but to pressure the companies to create jobs, by hurting them economically,” said the activist.
In this case they are doing that by occupying ticket booths, a form of protest that enables passengers to ride the trains for free, thus gaining the protesters support that they were not earning with the roadblocks.5
Moreover, it can hardly be said that the Piqueteros refuse to work through the state since many of their community endeavors are made possible by limited funds provided by Argentina’s welfare rolls. In short, what the Piqueteros have produced is a practical model of struggle that bears little resemblance to the vision of autonomy fostered by the theorists of the global north who celebrate them. It is hard to imagine how Day would reconcile his vision of groundless solidarity and infinite responsibility with the fact that Piqueteros who fail to show up for their regular community work details are cut off from needed funds. Far from being an expression of affinity as Day describes it, the Piquetero struggle is predicated on a collective agreement amongst participants to abide by the disciplinary pull of coercive power. It is a simple method. And it is one that is very effective.
And so while Day is able to draw parallels based on a superficial similarity in sensibility, he cannot address the problem of formulating goals or determining how we will move from here to there. Since, by definition, these goals are instrumental and invariably imply a degree of coercion, they are not on the agenda for Day’s politics of affinity. It makes for strange reading. For instance, while Day acknowledges that none of the practices catalogued in the opening section of his book are purely based on affinity, he nevertheless ignores the obvious point that it is precisely on the basis of the Piqueteros’ attempt to make hegemonic assertions – creating a “we,” advancing demands, organizing to assert oppositional power – that they have been as effective as they have.
Instead, by pointing to a superficial similarity, Day makes it possible for the desperate-hopeful reader who has lived through the tragic demise of the North American movement to believe that their Food Not Bombs group is as consequential as a several-thousand-strong national movement that has managed through its actions to shut down a country’s entire transportation infrastructure. In order to see the folly of such an approach, it suffices to contrast, without comment, Day’s own account of the successes of the Piqueteros to the description of Food Not Bombs provided by that organization on their website.
Argentina’s Movimento de Trabajadores Desocupados (Unemployed Workers Movement) have been extremely successful in using the tactic of highway blockades to express frustration with existing institutions. In August 2001, for example, a nation-wide mobilization of federated local groups managed to close more than 300 highways, thereby severely limiting the ability of the capitalist economy to maintain the flow of goods upon which it depends. (42)
Food Not Bombs is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to nonviolent social change. Food Not Bombs has no formal leaders and strives to include everyone in its decision making process. Each group recovers food that would otherwise be thrown out and makes fresh hot vegetarian meals that are served outside in public spaces to anyone without restriction. Each independent group also serves free vegetarian meals at protests and other events. The San Francisco chapter has been arrested over 1,000 times in government’s effort to silence its protest against the city’s anti-homeless policies.6
The tragedy (or the farce) of Day’s argument lies in the fact that all of this has happened before. It’s been played out. The results are in. Politics without force of assertion is unworthy of the name. Force of assertion implies conflict between antagonists. And whatever wisdom can be salvaged from the idea that we ought to try to build a better world in the cracks of neoliberalism’s totalizing reach crumbles in our hands when we assert that these prefigurations, these semi-permanent autonomous zones, ought to be consequential. The second they’re consequential is the second they’ll be noticed. At that point, it becomes impossible to break the cycle of antagonism by will alone. They will come after us.
They have before.
In 1649, a group of peasants in Surrey, England created a semi-permanent autonomous zone. Outraged at enclosure and motivated by a peculiar reading of Christian scriptures, the Diggers – like many of the sects that came into being during the Protestant Reformation – believed that their vision of a better world could be lived in the present. And so they set out to occupy wastelands, to denounce landlords, and make the Earth “a common treasury.” Under the guidance of Gerrard Winstanley, they staked their claim on St George’s Hill. In many respects, the logic by which they advanced their claim is indistinguishable from the logic underlying Day’s thesis.
In the Diggers Manifesto, Winstanley divides the England of the world, which he associates with the lingering traces of Norman rule and with the hypocrisy of clerical law (hegemony), from the England-Israel that seeks to make liberty manifest through its acts (affinity). The Diggers begin their proclamation with the assertion that “not one word was spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another.” Their reasoning had to do specifically with reason itself: “And the reason is this, Every single man, Male and Female, is a perfect Creature of Himself; and the same Spirit that made the Globe, dwels in man to govern the Globe.”8
With this principle established, the Diggers were able to act with conviction in an ethically consistent manner. Their plan was to heal the divisions of the world by living as if it was a common treasury. They argued that all people should take over the wastelands and common areas so that they might be sown. In the process, they would do more than free themselves from hunger. They would also expel those who abided by the letter but not the spirit of the law, those that “made the Earth stinck every where, by oppressing others, under pretense of worshipping the Spirit rightly, by the Types and Sacrifices of Moses Law.” Since those men were still among them on this Earth, they felt a moral and political obligation to rid themselves of their presence so that the Earth could once again be made whole – could once again reflect the light shining from the New Jerusalem.
That this moment of direct action was intended to bring the New Jerusalem into being is beyond doubt. When recounting the words God spoke to members of the Diggers, Winstanley makes clear that theirs was the struggle to set Israel free. In this moment, he also outlines the program for the Digger rebellion, detailing the strategy, the manner in which it would be implemented, and the means by which it could be generalized. For instance, Winstanley enjoins workers not to sell their labour to others or pay rent, since to do so would be to submit to the will of another and disrupt the equality that lay at the heart of Creation. “But they that are resolved to work and eat together, making the Earth a Common Treasury, doth joyn hands with Christ, to lift up the Creation from Bondage, and restore all things from the Curse.”
One can see in this vision the same spark that catches Day’s imagination when he recounts Gustav Landauer’s claim that new forms of social cohesion needed to be created “alongside, rather than inside, existing forms of social organization.” Like Landauer, Day’s argument rests on the premise that the social revolution “should be carried out here and now, for its own sake, by and for those who wished to establish new relationships not mediated by state and corporate forms” (123). But desire to live in an unmediated state is not all that is required to ensure that the forces of repression do not intervene. And while Day assures us that the totalizing reach of the neoliberal project will always crack under the weight of its own logic and leave unguarded spaces in which activists can live free of constraint right here in the present, he does not provide any indication as to how liberated ground might be defended in those instances when – as a result of initial success – movement participants begin spilling out from the safety of the cracks.
As is well known, the Diggers did not prevail. And their failure can only be understood if it is examined from the standpoint of the course they plotted between means and ends. Winstanley’s account reveals that the Diggers had both a clear vision of the political problem and a clear basis on which they thought it could be opposed. However, the means chosen to enact that opposition did not take into full consideration the conditions of the struggle itself. By attempting to oppose the dominant order of their day by creating an approximation of the future order alongside it (as Day, following Landauer, suggests), the Diggers turned their attention away from the constituted power of landlords and rulers. And though there may be no swords in the kingdom of God, it might have been exceptionally useful to have had some on St George’s Hill.
The identity of means and ends fostered by the politics of affinity is invariably satisfying to those for whom it is a possibility. For the rest of us, there is struggle. War, sometimes open, sometimes hidden, has never stopped being a political reality. For his part, Day acknowledges in his concluding remarks that revolutionary political orientations cannot be dispensed with in all cases. Further, models based on affinity cannot be applied across the board (since to do so would be to render them hegemonic). However, he does assert that these models need to be investigated more fully than they have been to date (215). Only then, Day claims, will it become possible to recognize the limited prospects of the revolutionary orientation. I would like to propose an alternate conclusion. It takes the form of a passage from The Eighteenth Brumaire, in which Marx recounts the orientation to failure adopted by the revolutionary movements of the proletariat. These movements, Marx thought,
criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic, before them, recoil ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all the turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta! Here is the rose, here dance!9
Failure is endemic to any project whose goal is as lofty as human emancipation. It cannot be ignored or appeased. It cannot be buried under good intentions or changed into its opposite by holding it up to the mirror of wishful thinking. What failure calls for most of all is honesty. And the truth should hurt. What Day offers up is salve for the wounded. But the price of that salve is the forfeiture of the “indefinite prodigiousness” of our own aims. In the end, this is the greatest failure of all.
1. Day, Richard (2006). Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. Between the Lines, Toronto.
2. With respect to distortion, it should be noted that the genealogical method invariably produces the temptation to make things too clean. It is, after all, very difficult to effectively traverse the gulf between Ancient Greece and poststructuralist theory in a single text. These difficulties, significant in and of themselves, are exacerbated when one’s goal is to make a text accessible to non-academic audiences who might be turned off by the perceived belaboring of simple points. However, since Day’s text is advanced as a strategic proposition, activists (whether or not they have academic training) should approach these historical glosses with great caution. At the end of each section of his genealogy, Day is the first to admit that his treatment of the issues is partial and that, in the space allotted by the tempo of his progression, it would not have been possible to provide a more detailed account. Each selected detail is therefore subordinated to the necessities of a predetermined prescriptive frame. And while history can always be submitted as evidence, the partiality of the accounts necessitated by Day’s genealogy makes the veracity of some of this evidence doubtful.
3. Globalism and Race at A16 in D.C. by Colin Raja: http://www.arc.org/C_Lines/CLArchive/story3_3_01.html.
4. Sanbonmatsu, John (2004). The Postmodern Prince: Critical Theory, Left Strategy, and the Making of A New Political Subject. Monthly Review Press, New York. (p.193).
5. Churchill, Ward (1998). Pacifism as Pathology: Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in North America. Arbeiter Ring, Winnipeg. (pp.63-64).
6. http://www.agrnews.org/issues/285/labor.html#1. For another account, See: http://argentina.indymedia.org/news/2004/09/221237.php.
7. http://www.foodnotbombs.net/story.html (text reproduced verbatim and without correction). The point of this exercise, as I hope is by now clear, is decidedly not to dismiss the contributions of FNB activists. Rather, it is to highlight the dangers of delusion that accompany attempts to compare apples with oranges in the hope of finding identity between them.
8. All citations referring to Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers Manifesto are from Hopton, Andrew (ed) (1989). Gerrard Winstanley: Selected Writings. Aporia Press, London.
9. Marx, Karl (1969). “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Seleceted Works, Volume 1. Progress Publishers, Moscow.