Archetypes of Dissent

Mapping the cultural contraflow of revolt.

MARIO RUIZ/CORBIS

Radical politics is defined by opacity, anonymity and dissimulation … and by invisibility: by the political presence of absence.

The power of surprise, of secret organization, of rebelling, of demonstrating and plotting covertly, of striking invisibly, and in multiple sites at once, is the key element that the Invisible Committee, anonymous authors of The Coming Insurrection, affirm for confronting a power whose firepower is vastly superior. To be explicitly visible, to appear explicitly – in a maneuver, in organizing, even in an occupation –“is to be exposed, that is to say above all, vulnerable.”

Here Guy Fawkes and black ski masks become emblems of veritable nobodies, of invisible underground men and women, of people without qualities who want to disguise their inner qualities, who shun visibility and have little desire to be the somebody the world wants them to be. These bodies are publicly expressive bodies yet are bodies weary of revealing too much of themselves. That’s why they wear disguises: they reveal their true identities by dissimulating their facial identity, by transgressing where these bodies are supposed to be and how they are supposed to look and act.

This, after all, is the whole point of the “black blocs” that appeard within certain Occupy actions, a tactic whereby hoods, caps and masks create an anonymity symbolizing a tacit solidarity, a militant togetherness in the face of danger, a collective identity voiced without words, because sometimes words can say too little – or too much. What we have here is an expressive politics that “appears” in a different guise, in its true guise of invisibility, simultaneously present and absent in “public” space.

In fact, the whole idea of opacity and dissimulation, of clandestinity and anonymity is part and parcel of an archetype of contemporary militant politics, part of its tactic and identity, part of the armory of what dissent is and should be. Perhaps it’s possible to draw up a list of “archetypes of dissent,” of progressive, not reactionary dissenters. Archetypes that symbolize, as Jung would have had it, an innate disposition to make trouble, to protest, to revolt against the structures of modern power; to let power know that ordinary people are still alive and kicking, and that staying alive necessitates every once in a while kicking out at power, at its structures of law and order.

Let me flag out five “archetypes of dissent”: (1) Secret Agents; (2) Double Agents; (3) Maggots in the Apple; (4) Great Escapers; and (5) Great Refusers.

Secret Agents are people who devote their very lives and being to the radical cause. They may be professional organizers and tacticians, plotting and dissenting, often clandestinely, writing and printing militant literature, existing to spread the word and fight the power. Nowadays, they may be black bloc’er anarchists, marxists, socialists and autonomous communists of assorted stripes and persuasions, who, with Occupy, have now found focus, a medium through which they can channel and refract their energies and dissatisfactions. Their militancy is thus at once open and concealed, known to some yet hidden from others.

If Secret Agents have a “cover,” Double Agents conceal their dual identities. Their being isn’t “either/or” but “both/and.” In practice, this makes for a strange, schizoid practice, a deeper political idealism lurking behind a socially conventional pragmatism, a person in society who is rebelling against society. The stuff of the 99% doubtless consists of many double agents: they earn a living to equip themselves to overthrow what earning a living really means.

Any radical artist, too, who wants their revolutionary art and wares to reach broader publics knows about the hazards and possibilities of double agency. They sometimes follow what Walter Benjamin said of poet Charles Baudelaire: that he was the “double agent of his class … an agent of secret discontent of his class within its rule,” a species who is the very product of modern life, with its complex role-playing and ambivalences, its tangled loyalties and multiple identities. Double agents revel in the tormented freedoms and contradictions these ambivalences engender.

“Maggots in the apple” is the evocative phrase Henri Lefebvre took from French novelist Stendhal. In the first few decades of the nineteenth-century, Stendhal described a “new romanticism” in the air, a brazenly utopian response to the problems of an emergent technological and industrial civilization, problems that remain ours today. In the early 1960s, when Lefebvre wrote Introduction to Modernity, he spotted a renewal of both classical and modern romanticism fighting back against the crushing irrational rationality of a bourgeois modernity run amok, updating the project Stendhal announced in the 1820s: “At last,” Stendhal wrote in Racine and Shakespeare, “… the great day will come when the youth will awake; this noble youth will be amazed to realize how long and how seriously it has been applauding such colossal inanities … It requires courage to be a romantic … because one must take a risk.”

Lefebvre concluded Introduction to Modernity by saying there was a “new attitude” drifting in the breeze: revolts, acts of insubordination, protests, abstentions, rebellions were there and felt; Stendhal was a man of the late twentieth-century. His romanticism affirmed disparate elements of society. Perhaps their historical counterparts today are the downsized “post-work” victims of a right-sizing capitalist corporate ethic, which “sets workers free” as business cycles dip and as austerity measures grip; and the maggots now constitute a huge mass of sub, under and unemployed workers, who are a relative surplus population.

And they work, if they can find it, insecurely, at McJobs, on temporary contracts, on workfare programs and in internships. Many are students and post-students who know that before them lies a dark, deep abyss that’s about to engulf them, a black hole of the labor market and debt. This ragged array of people now attempts to live out within bourgeois society, challenging its “moral” economic order, surviving in its core, “like a maggot in an apple,” trying to eat their way out from the inside.

Great Escapers take to flight as a form of fight and express a spirit of critical positivity. They have absolutely no truck with existing society and go it alone, or alone with others, to create alternative radical communities and communes, frequently self-sufficient, both in the city and the countryside.

Their modus operandi is precisely the opposite’s of Kafka’s K.’s. Instead of trying to enter the inner recesses of the castle, of the citadel of contemporary capitalism, instead of trying to find doors to knock on and people to complain to, demanding their “rights,” Great Escapers burrow out under the castle’s ramparts and ask for nothing. They dig tunnels and construct exit trails; they organize, with great caution, invisible escape committees (as they have at Tarnac, France); and they hope their tunnels will be long enough and sufficiently deep enough to reach freedom, ubiquitous enough to converge with other tunnels. And if enough people dig, the surface superstructure might one day give away entirely, after everybody has left. What remains will implode in one great big heap of rubble – like the Berlin Wall.

The Great Escape suggests something subterranean, something organized and tactical, something practical and concrete. It begins below and at ground level and doesn’t float up in the air, abstractly, plonking itself down undemocratically. A lot of liberals and radicals still believe that the central object of any struggle isn’t to orchestrate escape tunnels but to destroy the social structures and institutions that underwrite human captivity, that define the castle on the hill. They say that one needs to abolish the conditions of mass subordination, destroy the logic of prison camps as well as the processes that give rise to camp mentality. One needs to negate the contradiction between inmate and warder, they say, before one can begin to create a passage to freedom.

But demolishing the social structure is a project destined to suffer the same trials and frustrations K. suffered when he tried to break into his castle, when he tried to find a well-grounded confidence for further and greater struggles that should have followed yet which always eluded him.

Great Refusers take to fight as a form of flight. They express a spirit of negative defiance, immortalized by Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, the no-holds-barred outcry “against that which is.” In refusing to play the game, in voicing NO, in individually and collectively downing tools, Great Refusers already begin to create another dimension to life. They give renewed breadth and depth to it, re-sublimate what has been de-sublimated, denied by a delusional “happy consciousness.” Better to sport an unhappy, dissatisfied mien, Marcuse thought, with a frustrated libido that still functions, that still flows with the energy of the Life Instinct, than have your vital center bought off, sensually deprived by the instant gratification of society’s gismos.

Doubtless, dissenters here can fall into more than one category, and might even fall between categories. Their respective constitution and organizing causes, be they romantically idealist or pragmatically realist, can likewise change over time, subject to personal and political circumstances. Indeed, the changing nature of their revolt suggests that this falling in and out of categories, and between categories, will make dissent both positively and negatively charged, a constant toing and froing that makes revolt more flexible and adaptive.

Meanwhile, all categories need each other, reinforce one another, and offer both offensive fronts and rearguard defenses. And the efficacy of any dissent will likely be predicated on how these dissenters organize themselves internally yet coordinate themselves externally, reach out to one another, create a bigger kaleidoscope, a more inclusive constellation of dissent that coexists horizontally, democratically.

Taken together, these archetypes express a cultural contraflow of revolt, a different meme that circulates and gets exchanged collectively, that distributes and consummates itself spatially, that has to reproduce itself temporally on an ever-expanding scale of activity and activism – otherwise it will die off in a process of natural political selection. Memes are cultural transmitters, messenger particles carrying ideas, symbols and buzz concepts that catch on, that are communicable between people, that solidify group identity. Memes in this sense are cultural analogues of dissenting genes, mutating and replicating themselves as they respond to internal and external selective pressure, to external political pressure.

We might say that neoliberalism, as a political-economic paradigm, is a meme that has parasitized our brains over the past 20 years or more, and has entered our culture in a way that looks like a highly speeded up genetic revolution, “but has really nothing to do with genetic revolution.” There is nothing natural here: its agents and commissars, its institutions and lobbyists, its professors and experts have cajoled and bullied us into accepting this meme as a given, ensuring that this idea has evolved memically, imitatively.

Now, though, facing what Guy Debord called “domination’s falling rate of profit,” we’ve heard the spirited appeal for a permanent “meme war,” for revolters to battle under the banner of a new meme, to propagate a different political-economic paradigm, one antagonistic to the dominance of the old order, one transforming and even erasing the institutions that spread this old meme, that have parasitized our brains like a virus.

Archetypes of dissent can help us unravel what this new alternative meme might be, how it gets disseminated through actual revolt, how it exists conceptually in the minds of recipients, and how it might one day become a reality out in the world.

Andy Merrifield is an independent scholar based in the UK. He has written several books including a biography of Situationist philosopher Guy Debord. His most recent books are Magical Marxism (2011) and John Berger (2012).