It Begins with Refusal

Hardt and Negri.

We won’t pay your debt. We refuse to be evicted from our houses. We will not submit to austerity measures. Instead we want to appropriate your – or, really, our – wealth.

In certain periods, for instance when the crisis strikes with its hardest blows, and individuals are left to stand alone, the will to resist arises with extreme and desperate force. Where does it come from?

Many philosophers locate the origin of the will in lack, as if in order to want or act one must be focused on what is missing. But that’s not true. The will is born positively from the impulse to affirm a plenitude not a lack, the urge to develop a desire. The will not to pay debts means not only seeking what we don’t have, what has been lost, but also and more importantly affirming and developing what we desire, what is better and more beautiful: the sociality and the fullness of social relationships.

The refusal of debt, therefore, does not mean breaking social ties and legal relationships to create an empty, individualized, fragmented terrain. We flee those bonds and those debts in order to give new meaning to the terms bond and debt, and to discover new social relationships. Marx was being realistic when he spoke about money as the primary social connection in capitalist society. “The individual,” he wrote, “carries his social power, as well as his bond with society, in his pocket.” The refusal of debt aims to destroy the power of money and the bonds it creates and simultaneously to construct new bonds and new forms of debt. We become increasingly indebted to one another, linked not by financial bonds but by social bonds.

Make the Truth

When we refuse to be mediatized, we have not only to stop allowing ourselves to be fooled, believing everything we read in the papers, and simply digesting the truths we are fed, but also we need to break our attention away from the media. It sometimes seems that we are enthralled by video screens and can’t take our eyes off them. How often have you seen people walking (and even driving!) on city streets with their heads down while texting, bumping into each other as if hypnotized? Break the spell and discover a new way to communicate! It is not only or even primarily that we need different information or different technologies. Yes, we need to discover the truth, but also, and more important, we need to make new truths, which can be created only by singularities in networks communicating and being together.

Political projects that focus on providing information, although certainly important, can easily lead to disappointment and disillusionment. If only the people of the United States knew what their government is doing and the crimes it has committed, one might think, they would rise up and change it. But, in fact, even if they were to read all the books by Noam Chomsky and all the material released by WikiLeaks, they could still vote the same politicians back in power and, ultimately, reproduce the same society. Information alone is not enough. The same is true of practices of ideology critique, more generally: revealing the truth about power does not stop people from striving for their servitude as if it were their liberation. And neither is it enough to open a space for communicative action in the public sphere. The mediatized is not a figure of false consciousness but rather one caught in the web, attentive, enthralled.

Before you can actively communicate in networks, you must become a singularity. The old cultural projects against alienation wanted you to return to yourself. They battled the ways in which capitalist society and ideology have separated us from ourselves, broken us in two, and thus sought a form of wholeness and authenticity, most often in individual terms. When you become a singularity, instead, you will never be a whole self. Singularities are defined by being multiple internally and finding themselves externally only in relation to others. The communication and expression of singularities in networks, then, is not individual but choral, and it is always operative, linked to a doing, making ourselves while being together.

When we become unmediatized we don’t cease to interact with media – indeed the movements of 2011 are known for their employment of social media such as Facebook and Twitter – but our relationship to media changes. First, as singularities we gain a free mobility in networks. We swarm like insects, follow new pathways, and come together in new patterns and constellations. The form of political organization is central here: a decentralized multitude of singularities communicates horizontally (and social media are useful to them because they correspond to their organizational form). Demonstrations and political actions are born today not from a central committee that gives the word but rather from the coming together of and the discussion among numerous small groups. After the demonstration, similarly, messages spread virally through the neighborhoods and a variety of metropolitan circuits.

Second, media become tools for our collective self-production. We are able to create new truths only when we cease to be individual and constitute ourselves in our relationships to others, opening ourselves to a common language. Making the truth is a collective linguistic act of creativity. Sometimes the creation and diffusion of political slogans in demonstrations constitute an act of truth-making. The discourse of the 99% versus the 1% that emerged from the Occupy movements, for example, illuminated the reality of social inequality and dramatically shifted the terms of public debate. A more complex example is the truth created by the 2001 Argentine slogan, “Que se vayan todos” (“Throw them all out”). The slogan expressed in condensed form not only the corruption of politicians, political parties, and the constitutional system itself, but also the potential for a new, participatory democracy. Such productions of truth also involve the creation of political affects by negotiating the terms of our being together in relation to each other. Expressing these political affects in being together embodies a new truth.

Break Free

Of all the ways that people refuse the security regime today, the most significant are modalities of flight. You can’t beat the prison, and you can’t fight the army. All you can do is flee. Break your chains and run. Most often, flight involves not coming out into the open but rather becoming invisible. Since security functions so often by making you visible, you have to escape by refusing to be seen. Becoming invisible, too, is a kind of flight. The fugitive, the deserter, and the invisible are the real heroes (or antiheroes) of the struggle of the securitized to be free. But when you run, think of George Jackson and grab a weapon as you go. It might come in handy down the road.

You are only able really to refuse and flee, though, when you recognize your power. Those living under the weight of a security regime tend to think of themselves as powerless, dwarfed by its overarching might. Those in a prison society think of themselves as living in the belly of a Leviathan, consumed by its power. How can we possibly match its firepower, how can we escape its all-seeing eyes and its all-knowing information systems? To find a way out all you have to do is remember the basic recognition of the nature of power explained by Foucault and, before him, Niccolò Machiavelli: power is not a thing but a relation. No matter how mighty and arrogant seems that power standing above you, know that it depends on you, feeds on your fear, and survives only because of your willingness to participate in the relationship. Look for an escape door. One is always there. Desertion and disobedience are reliable weapons against voluntary servitude.

Sometimes flight takes unusual forms. The Marranos in fifteenth-century Spain, for instance, were forced to convert to Christianity but continued to practice Judaism in secret. They led a double life: obeying when the forces of power were watching and subverting that power in hidden spaces. They conducted a kind of secret flight while staying still.

Constitute Yourself

You don’t represent me! ¡Que se vayan todos! Such refusals of representation and representative governmental structures have been pronounced by millions during the crisis of neoliberalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century. One novelty of these protests and these refusals consists of the fact that they immediately make clear that the crisis is not only economic, social, and political, but also constitutional. Representative structures and liberal governance regimes are all thrown into question. The audacious conceptual leap made by the theory and practice of parliamentary representation (from the “will of all” to the “general will”) has finally proven to be fatal, and even the new forms of governance pulled out as a safety net to catch the falling acrobat have proven too weak and frayed.

It’s increasingly hard for anyone to believe in the resurrection and redemption of the constitution. Ancien regime was once the name for the rule of those in powdered wigs, but now instead the representative machine is an ancien regime! The republican constitutions have had their time, more than two centuries. Isn’t that enough?

Political and constitutional debate has to be reopened. And the radical change demanded today is not only about content (from the private and the public to the common) but also about form. How can people associate closely together in the common and participate directly in democratic decision-making? How can the multitude become prince of the institutions of the common in a way that reinvents and realizes democracy? This is the task of a constituent process.

When financial debts have been transformed into social bonds, when singularities interact in productive networks, and when the desire for security is freed from fear, then, from the inversion of these three figures, subjectivities capable of democratic action will begin to emerge. In the bourgeois societies of the industrial era, the available avenues for political action were primarily corporatist and individualist; in post-industrial, neoliberal societies, the possibilities are even more meager, and the represented is allowed only a passive and generic political role. The movement from the bourgeois citizen to the represented was universalizing in its juridical form and yet gradually emptied of any content. Now new figures of political subjectivity can instead discover forms of participation that overflow corporatist and individualist divisions, and that give substance and content to the generic and abstract forms of political activity. The mechanisms of the production of rules can be constructed only in singular form according to common modalities. From now on constituent powers must function and be continually renewed from below.

But why, some friends ask us, are we still talking about constitutions? Why can’t we free ourselves from all normative structures and institutions? Every revolution needs a constituent power – not to bring the revolution to an end but to continue it, guarantee its achievements, and keep it open to further innovations. A constituent power is necessary to organize social production and social life in accordance with our principles of freedom, equality, and solidarity. Constituent processes constantly revise political structures and institutions to be more adequate to the social fabric and material foundation of social conflicts, needs, and desires.

Said more philosophically, constituent processes are dispositifs of the production of subjectivity. But why, our friends repeat, must subjectivities be produced? Why can’t we just be ourselves? Because even if there were some original or primordial human nature to be expressed, there is no reason to believe it would foster free, equal, and democratic social and political relations. Political organization always requires the production of subjectivities. We must create a multitude capable of democratic political action and the self-management of the common.

An example can help clarify one aspect of this proposition. When the Spanish indignados, who had occupied the squares in the spring of 2011, refused to participate in the fall 2011 national elections, they were strongly criticized. Their detractors called them impotent anarchists and called their refusal to engage with state institutions and electoral politics ideological and hysterical. They were breaking apart the Left! The indignados, of course, are not anarchists, and they are not responsible for fragmenting the Left. Instead they have created a rare opportunity for reforming and relaunching a new and different Left.

A few years earlier many of them were the same activists who, when right-wing politicians publicly attributed the tragic bombing at Madrid’s Atocha train station to Basque militants, immediately proclaimed the truth through an extraordinary relay on cellphones and other media – pasalo, they wrote, “pass it on” – and their actions effectively ushered the socialists and Zapatero to a surprise electoral victory. The indignados did not participate in the 2011 elections, then, in part because they refused to reward a socialist party that had continued neoliberal policies and betrayed them during its years in office, but also and more importantly because they now have larger battles to fight, in particular one aimed at the structures of representation and the constitutional order itself – a fight whose Spanish roots reach back to the tradition of antifascist struggles and throw a new and critical light on the so-called transition to democracy that followed the end of the Franco regime. The indignados think of this as a destituent rather than a constituent process, a kind of exodus from the existing political structures, but it is necessary to prepare the basis for a new constituent power.