Disobe­dience and Political Subjectificati­on in the Present Crisis


3 Haziran 2014

Mevcut Hero Paolo Rosa (Laboratorio di Comunicazione Militante), <i>Censurato</i>, 1977<br />
Paolo Rosa (Laboratorio di Comunicazione Militante), Censurato, 1977

Contemporary forms of collective political mobilization – whether we are talking about urban riots or the struggles of labor unions, whether violent or non-violent – are fraught with the same problematics: the refusal of representation and the experimentation and invention of forms of organization and expression that break away from modern political tradition, which is founded upon the delegation of power to representatives of the people and the classes of society.

The refusal to delegate the representation of what divides us (property, wealth, power etc.) to political parties and labor unions, and the representation of what we share (citizenship, community) to the State, has its origins in a new concept of political action brought forward by the “revolution” of ‘68.

The mobilizations breaking out a bit everywhere across the planet these days assert that “there are no alternatives” possible within representative democracy.

The refusal and disobedience that thrive within these struggles seek and experience new political actions within the crisis. But what crisis are we talking about, and what kinds of political organization find expression in the crisis?

During a 1984 seminar, Félix Guattari asserted that the crisis the West was going through since the early ’70s was not so much an economic or political crisis as a crisis in the production of subjectivity. How should we understand this assertion? Germany and Japan emerged from the Second World War completely destroyed, occupied for the long term, socially and psychologically devastated, and without “a single material asset – no raw materials, no capital reserves whatsoever.” How then do we explain their economic miracle? They were able to reconstitute a tremendous “capital of subjectivity” (a capital of knowledge, of collective intelligence, of the will to survive…). In fact, they invented new kinds of subjectivity from the devastation itself. The Japanese, in particular, recuperated elements of their archaic subjectivity and converted them into the most advanced forms of social and material production. “It’s a sort of combination of production of subjectivity that made it possible to launch a multiplicity of creative processes, some of which are extremely alienating!”

If capitalism “launches models (of subjectivity) the way the automobile industry launches new production models,” then the major challenge of a capitalist politics is to link economic, technological, and social fluxes with the production of subjectivity, so that political economics becomes nothing but a “subjective economics.” This working hypothesis deserves to be revived and extended into the contemporary situation on the basis of one observation: that neoliberalism has failed to articulate this relationship.

There is no new production of subjectivity that corresponds to the neoliberal deterritorialization that has destroyed the old social relationships and their modes of subjectification (working-class, communistic, or social-democratic subjectification, but also national subjectivity and bourgeois subjectivity etc.). The neoliberal identification with the entrepreneur, which Foucault used to sum up the subjective mobilization that management requires in all activity, brings with it no solution to the problem. Quite the opposite. Capital has always needed a territory that is neither that of the market nor the company, and a subjectivity that is not that of the entrepreneur, since the entrepreneur, the company, and market may make the economy, but they unmake society.

The generalization of entrepreneurial subjectification expressed in the desire to turn every individual into a business leads to paradox. The subjective autonomy, activation, and commitment demanded of the individual constitute new norms of employability and therefore, properly speaking, a heteronomy. On the other hand, the injunction to act, to take the initiative, to take individual risks, leads to depression, the illness of the century, the expression of the refusal to assume the homogenization and impoverishment of existence produced by the individual “success” of the business model.

For the majority of the population, becoming an economic subject (“human capital,” “self-entrepreneur”) is nothing more than an injunction to manage the decrease in salaries and revenues, job insecurity, unemployment, and poverty, as if this was all part of a company’s bottom line. And as we sink ever deeper into the crisis created by the repeated “financial” debacles, capitalism is gradually abandoning its rhetoric of the society of knowledge and information and its glorious subjectifications (cognitive workers, manipulators of symbols, combative creators and winners). The crisis brings to the foreground the debt and its modalities of subjection, the indebted man.

Once the promises of the enrichment of everyone through credit and finance collapse, the only remaining policy is that of safeguarding creditors, the owners of capital “securities.” To affirm the centrality of private property, the link between “production” and the “production of subjectivity” is made on the basis of debt and the indebted man. In the economics of debt, capital always functions as a point of subjectification, though not only for the purpose of designating some as “capitalists” and others as “workers,” but also and above all as “creditors” and “debtors.” The indebted man obviously lives a negative subjection; he is a symptom of the fact that the fluxes of knowledge, activity, and mobility, while remaining continually sought, only lead to a repressive, regressive subjectification. It is no longer a question of innovation, creativity, knowledge, or culture, but of the “secession” of owners of capital whose “exodus” lies in the fact of helping themselves generously to the benefits of the Welfare State by refusing to pay taxes. As a result, what can be inferred from the unequivocality of the concept of production is that the “financial crisis” is not solely an economic crisis, but also a crisis of neoliberal governance, whose wish to make every individual an owner, a business, a stockholder, failed miserably with the collapse of mortgage-backed securities in the U.S. The economic failure and the failure in the production of subjective images of the owner, stockholder, and entrepreneur go hand-in-hand.

The origins of these failures like in the twofold rejection of neoliberal subjective images: the refusal to become “human capital” and, with the crisis, the refusal to become an “indebted man.”

The parties and unions of the “left” have no answers to these proletarian rejections and these capitalist impasses, since they, too, have no spare subjectivities to offer. The people, the working class, labor, producers, and employment no longer engage subjectivity, no longer function as vectors of subjectification. Laborers and salaried workers only represent socio-professional categories for statistics and polls, rather than a breeding-ground of revolutionary or even reformist subjectification.

Contemporary critical theories similarly fail to articulate the relationship between capitalism and the subjectification process. Cognitive capitalism, the information society, and cultural capitalism (Rifkin) only very reductively represent the connection between production and subjectivity, because on the one hand knowledge, information, and culture do not come close to covering the multiplicity of “economies” that make up “production” and, on the other, because their subjective figures (cognitive workers, manipulators of symbols, etc.) do not encompass the multiplicity of modes of subjection and subjectification that make up the “production of subjectivity.1 Their claim to serve as a hegemonic paradigm for production and the production of subjectivity is belied by the fact that, as shown by the crisis, the fate of the class struggle does not seem to be playing out around knowledge, information and culture. If these theories lead to an impoverishment of the connection between production and the production of subjectivity, Rancière and Badiou are totally unaware of it. For these theories, this relationship has no meaning at all. On the contrary, they assert the need to express a radical separation of “economics” from “subjectivity,” with the result that they work out an economistic conception of economics and a subjectivist or “idealistic” conception of politics.

We can therefore insist, with Guattari, that subjectivity cannot find how or anything in which to subjectify itself: “It is a major crisis. A crisis of what? In my opinion, it is a major crisis because the question on almost everyone’s lips is the following: Goddamn it, we really need a religion, an idea (…) we can’t remain like this, in suspense!”

What, then are the conditions for a political and existential break at a historical moment when the production of subjectivity constitutes the first and most important form of capitalist production? What specific instruments of the production of subjectivity are needed to thwart its industrial mass production by business and the State? What forms of organization should be created for a process of subjectification that would make it possible to flee at once the clutches of subjection and those of enslavement?

In the 1980s, Foucault and Guattari, by different paths, designated the production of subjectivity and the constitution of the “relationship to oneself” as perhaps the only contemporary political questions that might lead us out of the impasse in which we are trapped.

They discovered, each in his own way, a new, irreducible dimension to the relations of power and the relations of knowledge. The “relationship to oneself” (Foucault) as a potential for self-positioning and existential affirmation (Guattari), derives—in the double sense of flowing out of and bifurcating—from the relations of power and the relations of knowledge. Yet while the subjective dimension derives from relations of power and knowledge, it does not depend on them.

For Foucault, the “care of the self” (souci de soi) does not mean seeking the dandy’s ideal of a “beautiful life;” it means posing the question of the interrelationship between an “aesthetic of existence” and a corresponding politics. The questions of “another life and another world” arise from a “militant” life whose precondition lies in the break with established conventions, habits, and values. Guattari’s aesthetic paradigm does not lead to an aestheticization of the social and political, but rather to making the production of subjectivity the main practice and concern of a new form of militancy and a new manner of political organization.

The processes of subjectification and their modalities of organization have always given rise to crucial debates within the workers’ movement that were the occasion for breaks and political divisions between “reformists” and “revolutionaries.”

We cannot understand the history of the worker’s movement if we refuse to see the “wars of subjectivity” (Guattari) it has waged. “A certain type of worker of the Paris Commune became such a ‘mutant’ that the bourgeoisie had no other solution than to exterminate him. The Paris Commune was liquidated the same way as the Protestants of Saint-Bartholomew’s in another époque.”

The Bolsheviks explicitly asked themselves how they might invent a new type of militant subjectivity in response, among other things, to the defeat of the Commune. Examining the process of political subjectification, beginning with shedding light on the “micropolitical” (Guattari) and “microphysical” (Foucault) dimensions of power, does not exempt us from the need to cover and reconfigure the macropolitical dimension. On the contrary: “Either somebody, anybody, will produce new instruments of the production of subjectivity – whether Bolshevist, Maoist or what have you – or the crisis will continue to worsen.”

The transition to macropolitics invoked by Guattari in the above quotation seems to me all the more necessary as we are now in a completely different situation from that of the 1970s. At that time, the urgency was about getting out of the petrified, sclerotic macropolitics informing the programs of the various Communist parties and trade unions. Today, since these forces have either vanished or been completely integrated into the logic of capitalism, the important thing is to invent, experience, and assert a macropolitics capable on the one hand of bringing us out of (political and social) representative democracy and connecting with what Guattari calls “molecular revolution”—and, on the other, of reactivating the use of force, the power to block and suspend the subjections and enslavements, something to fulfil the same function as the strike in industrial capitalism. In the absence of which the neoliberal tidal wave will continue to implement its program in full: to reduce salaries to subsistence level; reduce Welfare State services to the minimum; privatize whatever is left of the “public” domain, all while pouring the population into the regressive cast of indebtedness.

Guattari, in his way, not only remained faithful to Marx, but also to Lenin. Of course the tools of the production of subjectivity created by Leninism (the party, the conception of the working class as a vanguard, the “professional militant,” etc.) are no longer adaptable to the composition of the current class. But what Guattari retains of Leninist experimentation is the methodology: the need to break with “social democracy,” to build new instruments of political innovation to be deployed around the modalities of the organization of subjectivity.

Power relationships and the relations of knowledge are overcome by the forces of self-affection, self-affirmation and self-positioning which, since they elude established forms of power and knowledge, constitute the preconditions for a break and the start of a new process of political subjectification and subjectification pure and simple.

For Guattari, the affirmation of this political autonomy was first expressed through the subjective break created by the First International, which “literally” invented a working class that didn’t exist yet (the communism of Marx’s day leaned essentially on craftsmen and guild members.) In capitalism, the processes of subjectification must at once come together and liberate themselves from economic, social, political and mechanical fluctuations. Both operations are indispensible: starting with the hold that the enslavements and subjections have on subjectivity, and organizing the break, which is always a self-invention and self-definition.

The rules of the production of self are those “optional” and process-oriented rules that we invent while constructing “sensitive territories” and a singularization of subjectivity at the micropolitical level and of the collective organizations of expression at the macropolitical level (Guattari), by creating the otherness of “another life” and “another world” (Foucault). From this comes the recourse not to cognitive, informational or linguistic instruments and paradigms, but to political instruments and paradigms that are ethico-aesthetic—the “aesthetic paradigm” of Guattari and the “aesthetics of existence” of Foucault.

It is only as a mutation of subjectivity takes shape, as a new existence begins to crystallize (Guattari), that we will be able to experience a new relationship with economic, linguistic, technical, social and communicational fluxes. To create new forms of discourse, consciousness, and politics one must pass through an unnamable point, a point of absolute non-narrative, non-knowledge, non-culture, non-consciousness. From this arises the (tautological) absurdity of conceiving production as the production of consciousness by means of consciousness. The theories of cognitive capitalism, the information society, and cultural capitalism, which claim to be theories of innovation and creation, fail precisely to conceive of the process through which “creation” and “innovation” are realized, since language, consciousness, information and culture are for the most part insufficient to these ends.

In order to take place, political subjectification must necessarily pass through these moments where dominant meanings are suspended and the hold of mechanical enslavement is neutralized. Striking, rebellion, rioting, and struggle in general constitute moments of rupture and the suspension of chronological time, the neutralization of forms of subjection and enslavement, where what emerges are not virginal, immaculate new subjectivities but breeding grounds, beginnings, embryos of subjectification whose realization and proliferation will depend upon a process of construction that must articulate, without recourse to techniques of representation, the relationship between “(desiring) production” and “subjectification.”

If the crisis henceforth produces only negative and regressive forms of subjection and enslavement (the indebted man), if capitalism finds itself unable to bring together production and the production of subjectivity in any other way than to safeguard capital’s property rights, the tools of theory must prove able to envision the conditions for a political subjectification that is also an existential mutation in opposition to capitalism as it experiences a crisis already of historic proportions.

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This essay is included in the newspaper Disobedience Archive (The Park) that was published for the exhibition, SALT Beyoğlu, April 22 - June 15, 2014.
  • 1.
    If this assertion is true for the great majority of workers and the population, it is also acknowledged among "cognitives" themselves who, in their struggle, never subjectify as "cognitives." This, at least, has been my experience with the Coordinations des intermittents et précaires d'Ile de France.