Capitalism burns all around us, leaving behind the debris of a bankrupt financial and political system. The illusion of limitless economic growth and the endless utopia of consumption have been forever shattered. Now governments have only austerity and hard times to offer us. Yet their assurances are wearing thin. Our political and economic masters know that people no longer believe in them, and behind the calm visage of power there is fear, fear of the specter of insurrection, the old fear that has haunted the imagination of every regime. Doesn’t everything – from the statements of politicians to the market predictions of economic gurus, to celebrity reality shows – now have a slight air of desperation, as if the entire spectacular-capitalist system (a system which in any case no longer even believes in itself and probably never did) is terrified lest it reveal the nihilism behind its facade?
This is a year of insurrections, from the streets of Cairo, Tunis and Benghazi, to the squares of Athens, Madrid and Wall Street. Miraculously, ordinary people gathered in public places – reclaiming these as public spaces – without authorization and without official representation. In some cases, they brought down governments, and in others they exerted a new kind of mass pressure on obsolete political systems that no longer even pretended to represent them. Revealed in the autonomous zones of Tahrir and Syntagma squares was the absolute abyss between people and the formal mechanisms of state power. In the people’s gesture of refusal, a new political space opened up, one whose consequences no one could determine in advance. The significance of these movements and occupations lay not so much in their achievement of concrete goals, but in their embodiment of a new collective political life, a form of politics that rejected representation through the tired old channels of political parties. The cry of the indignados in Spain was “You do not represent us!” – which can be understood both as a complaint against the lack of representation and as the desire to break with representation altogether and to act for themselves.
One of the lessons from these insurrections – and there are many – is that there is now no longer any difference between formal democracy and dictatorship; it’s simply a matter of degrees of repression. The power of the police, whose ghostly presence in the life of democratic states Walter Benjamin saw as devastating, is felt everywhere. What is the difference between Mubarak’s or Assad’s attempts to shut down social networking sites in Egypt and Syria, and Cameron’s threat to do the same in the UK?
And what is democracy in any case but a system that encourages a mass contentment with powerlessness, a collective voluntary servitude legitimated by the purely symbolic ritual of voting? The recent insurrections should be seen as being more than just about democracy, which in any case is now such an ambiguous term. Rather they were a collective form of voluntary inservitude. They were the realization that every system of power is ultimately fragile and dependent on the alienation and relinquishment of our power.
I talk of insurrection but not revolution. The revolution overthrows one regime of power only to replace it with another; the insurrection suspends power altogether, resisting its own institutionalization. Perhaps Max Stirner put it best: “It [the insurrection] is not a fight against the established, since, if it prospers, the established collapses of itself; it is only a working forth of me out of the established.”
A working forth of ourselves out of the established is the necessary threshold that any radical politics must pass through. It is the micro-political terrain upon which the insurrection takes place, at once ethical, psychological and spiritual, at once individual and collective. It involves an interrogation of one’s desires and attachments to power, as well as a transformation of one’s relation to others.
What made the recent riots in the UK seem different from the insurrections elsewhere was that they lacked this ethical (as well as political) dimension and were characterized by the worst kinds of incivility. I am not talking here about the defilement of the idols of property, which we should have no respect for. But what strikes us about the rioters was not their disrespect for the commodity but their absolute reverence for it – all that rebellious energy squandered on the desire for some silly designer label! What better example of what Stirner calls possessedness – where one becomes possessed by the thing, the object one desires to possess? The riots and looting were the ultimate expression of the fetishistic excesses of consumer society, and were thus thoroughly internal to it – as well as being internal to the binary of law-and-order/criminality. The problem with the riots was not that they were too transgressive but that they were not transgressive enough – they did not signify any kind of break with the religion of consumerism.
In the wake of the riots, the old bogeyman of anarchy loomed up again, authorizing a further intensification of police power. But anarchism – as a mode of politics and an expression of a free, ethical life – has little in common with this sort of quasi-religious spectacle of violence. Rather, anarchism involves a certain ethical discipline. Yet this is a self-imposed discipline of indiscipline, or what Foucault calls willful indocility. Obedience, as La Boëtie recognized long ago, comes easily to us – it is habitual. And so we must become disciplined into becoming undisciplined; we must become the ascetics of freedom. We must acquire, as Georges Sorel put it, “habits of liberty.”
Anarchism, or as I prefer to call it, postanarchism, is more than a political ideology. It is the ethico-political horizon today of all radical politics. The desire for an autonomy that can only be realized associatively and the emergence of movements that do not so much protest against the misery of our lives but joyously affirm the possibility of a radically different life are the unmistakable signs of the deepening of this horizon.