Politics without Politics - Anselm Jappe

The Secession of the Roman Plebs

Anselm Jappe rejects the traditional concept of politics and proposes a post-political politics appropriate for the crisis conditions of our time, a politics whose task is to “at least preserve the possibility for future emancipation against the dehumanization imposed by the commodity” and is based on a combination of non-representational direct action, the rehabilitation of the idea of sabotage, and anti-capitalist theory that transcends the fixed boundary between praxis and theory, without succumbing to the temptation to seek immediate results by yielding to traditional political attitudes and methods.

Politics without Politics – Anselm Jappe

At first, the “primacy of politics” was the trademark idea of the führer jurist, Carl Schmitt. But for some time now the “radical” left has hitched its wagon to a “return of the political” in which politics is supposed to be in and of itself the opposite of the “market”. Must we be convinced, then, that opposition to capitalism, or to its contemporary derivatives, passes for what is commonly called politics? It is obvious that nothing would have changed if Royal had been elected instead of Sarkozy. And even if the Trotskyists, who have taken the place of the social democrats who became liberals, were to share power in France, the world would not be turned upside down. In Germany, the “Party of Democratic Socialism” participates in regional governments; in Italy, Rifondazione Comunista has its cabinet posts; even the Italian centri sociali, often considered the crème de la crème of the struggle, send some deputy mayors to city hall. Everywhere, these representatives of the “radical” left end up supporting neoliberal policies. Do we need, then, to form “truly” radical parties, parties that will not founder in such swamps? Or are the reasons for these “betrayals” structural; does every instance of participation in politics inevitably lead to surrender to the market and its laws, regardless of any subjective intentions to the contrary?

It is thus fitting to pose a preliminary question: what do we mean by the term, “politics”? Here we encounter a confusion similar to the one that bedevils “labor” and its critique. Criticizing labor makes no sense at all if it is identified with productive activity as such, which is undoubtedly an established fact present in every human society. But everything changes if by labor we understand what this word effectively designates in capitalist society: the self-referential expenditure of simple labor power without consideration of its content. Thus conceived, labor is a historical phenomenon that pertains exclusively to capitalist society and that can be criticized and eventually abolished. Thus, the “labor” that all the actors on the political stage, left, right and center, want to save is labor as understood in this restricted sense.

Likewise, the concept of politics must be clearly defined. If it is identified with collective action, with the conscious intervention of men in society, with “love for the world” (Arendt), it is obvious that no one can be opposed to it and that a “critique of politics” could only be conceived as mere indifference with respect to the world. But those who commonly advocate a “return to politics” have a much more specific idea of what “politics” is, the politics whose alleged disappearance causes such serious crises of abstention. The ritual evocation of “politics” as the only possible way to change the world is the core concept of today’s “left”, from the Bourdieuist sociologists to Multitudes, from ATTAC to the “radical” electoral left. Despite their explicit intention to create a “completely different” politics, they repeatedly succumb to “realism” and the “lesser evil”, participate in elections, respect the outcomes of referendums, discuss the possible evolution of the Socialist Party, seek to make alliances and to conclude a “historic compromise”. In opposition to this desire to “play the game”—and almost always as “representatives” of some “interest”—we must recall those movements and historical moments of radical opposition that engaged in “anti-politics”: from the historical anarchists to the artistic avant-gardes, from certain movements in the global south, such as Critica radical in Fortaleza (Brazil), to the wildcat strike of May ’68 in France and the continuous state of insubordination in the Italian factories during the 1970s. This “anti-politics” is just as remote from the refusal of conscious intervention as the “anti-art” movements, the rejection of art in the case of the Dadaists, the Surrealists or the situationists, which was not a rejection of artistic means, but to the contrary was conceived as the only way to remain faithful to the original intentions of art.

But can anyone think that politics is the social sphere that would allow us to put limits on the market? That politics is “democratic” by nature and opposed to the capitalist economic world, where the law of the strongest rules?

Modern capitalist society, based on the commodity and universal competition, needs a dimension that assumes responsibility for those public structures without which it could not exist. This dimension is the state, and politics, in the modern (and restricted) meaning of the term, is the struggle to assume control over the state. But this sphere of politics is not external or an alternative to the sphere of the commodity economy. To the contrary, it is structurally dependent on it. In the political arena, the object of contention is the distribution of the fruits of the commodity system—the workers movement has essentially played this role—but not its existence. The visible proof: nothing is possible in politics that has not been previously “funded” by commodity production, and whenever the latter goes off the rails, politics becomes a clash between armed gangs. This kind of “politics” is a secondary regulatory mechanism within the fetishistic and unconscious system of the commodity. It does not represent a “neutral” dimension or a conquest that the opposition movements would have seized from the capitalist bourgeoisie. For, in effect, the latter is not necessarily hostile to the state or the public sphere; everything depends on the historical stage.

The contemporary advocates of “politics” betray their original intention to “take action” because they reduce this action to readjustments of a machine that they accept as such. Today, “action” must confront situations that are too serious to be faced with the old political methods. From now on, we proceed within the framework of a veritable anthropological regressive mutation, which is the result of more than two centuries of capitalism and, at the same time, of its programmed self-destruction, as has become evident over the last few decades. This regression is leading to barbarization. With the constant occurrence of incidents such as the one involving those adolescents who, horsing around and laughing, used a cell phone to record a video of a girl classmate who had just been run over by a bus so they could later upload the video to YouTube, it is somewhat insufficient to invoke unemployment, precarious jobs or the failure of our schools as an explanation. I submit instead that we are witnessing a generalized “anthropological regression” (which is not to say that it is uniformly manifested), which appears to be the product of a profound collective psychological disorder, the consequence of the fetishism of the commodity and of the relation the latter imposes on the way the individual interacts with the world. In the face of this crisis of civilization no one can honestly propose any effective short-term remedies. Indeed, precisely because the situation is so serious, one reinforces the evil by saying: we have to take action quickly and it does not matter what form it assumes, we do not have time for debate, praxis is worth more than theory. In this era of financial and molecular capitalism, we cannot settle for forms of opposition from the Fordist era.

A precondition for reestablishing the perspective of action is to make a final and clear break with all “politics” in the institutional sense. Today, the only possible form of “politics” is radical separation from the world of politics and its institutions, of representation and delegation, in order to invent and replace it with new forms of direct intervention. In this context, the most useless thing we can do is to debate with people who still want to vote. Those who, almost one hundred forty years after the introduction of universal suffrage, still flock to the ballot boxes, only deserve the words proclaimed by Octave Mirbeau1 in 1888, or Albert Libertad2 in 1906. The conquest of universal suffrage was one of the great battles of the historic left. The right wing voter, however, is not such a fool: sometimes he gets the little he expects from his candidates, even when it is not even in the official platform of his party (for example, toleration of tax evasion and violations of labor laws). His representatives do not betray him too much; and the voter who only votes for the candidate who is going to give his son a job or obtain some subsidies for the farmers in his district is, after all, the most rational voter. Much more imbecilic is the left wing voter: although he has never obtained what he has voted for, he persists. He has obtained neither the great change nor the crumbs. He allows himself to be lulled to sleep by mere promises. That is why those who voted for Berlusconi in Italy were by no means fools: they were not just seduced by their television networks, as their opponents would have us believe. They obtained limited, but very real, benefits from their government (and above all from its laissez-faire policies). But to continue to vote for the left when it has already been in the government—and here we can only see how correct Mirbeau actually is—approaches the realm of the pathological.

The rejection of “politics” thus conceived is not the product of an aesthetic taste for extremism. Confronted by the anthropological regression that threatens us, to appeal to Parliament is like trying to quell a hurricane with a protest march. The only “realistic” proposals—in the sense that they could effectively change the course of events—are of the following kind: the immediate abolition, starting tomorrow, of all television. Is there a party in the world that would dare to embrace such a proposal? What measures have been adopted during the last few decades that could really slow down the advance of barbarism? It will be said that a few small steps are better than nothing. But where have such steps been taken? Thirty years ago, the most courageous elements proposed legislation that would mandate one day per week without television. Today, we have hundreds of television channels. If nothing has been accomplished to impede this continuous degeneration, this means that the goals and methods were erroneous and that we have to go back to the drawing board. And it is self-evident that this cannot be done by treating the public with kid gloves, nor by holding televised conferences.

There are some examples of anti-political action: the anti-GMO “volunteer harvesters”, especially those who operate at night, thus reestablishing the connections with the tradition of sabotage, instead of pandering to the media, and those actions that have the objective of preventing the surveillance and biometric tracking apparatus from causing harm. We might also cite the residents of Val di Susa, in the Italian Alps, who have on various occasions blocked the construction of a high-speed train line in their mountains. This predominance of “defensive” struggles is not necessarily an indication of the absence of a broader perspective. To the contrary, these struggles against the worst “harmful phenomena” help to keep the path to such a perspective open. It is necessary to at least preserve the possibility for future emancipation against the dehumanization imposed by the commodity, which exposes us to the danger of permanently foreclosing the possibility of any alternative. This clears the way to opportunities for new fronts and new alliances. There are issues, such as the expropriation from individuals of their own biological reproduction, currently publicized under the rubric of “technologies of artificial fertilization”, in relation to which the positions of the modernist left are fully consonant with the insane schemes of technological omnipotence of contemporary capitalism compared to which even the positions of the Pope seem to acquire a certain air of rationality. The opposite of barbarism is humanization, a concept that is real enough, but hard to define. One possible kind of “politics” that is possible today would consist in the defense of the minor victories that have been historically achieved on the road to humanization and in opposition to their abolition. Contemporary capitalism is not just the economic injustice that one always finds at the center of discussion, and its list of misdeeds is not even complete with the environmental catastrophes that it causes. It is also a dismantling—a “deconstruction”—of the symbolic and psychological foundations of human culture, which is especially evident in the process of de-realization that has been launched by the electronic communications media. With regard to this dimension of the problem, it is of no importance whether it is Sarkozy or Royal, Besancenot or Le Pen whose face appears on the computer screen.

We have to reinvent a practice without surrendering to the demand to “do something and do it quick”, which always leads to a new version of things that were already tried and found wanting. The real problem is the general confinement—a confinement that is above all mental—in the fetishistic forms of existence, affecting the alleged adversaries as well as the supporters of the commodity system.3 The struggle to break with these forms that are anchored in everyone’s minds, to deprive money and the commodity, competition and labor, the state and “development”, progress and growth, of their innocent air, depends on those “theoretical struggles” situated beyond the fixed opposition between “theory” and “praxis”. Why does the analysis of the logic of the commodity or patriarchy have to be “mere” theory, while any workers strike, and any demonstration by students who are protesting because the university is not providing them with sufficient preparation for success on the labor market are viewed, for their part, as “praxis” or as “politics”?

Before acting, men think and feel, and the way they act derives from what they think and feel. Changing the way men think and feel is already a form of action, a form of praxis. Once there is a clear consciousness, at least among a minority, of the goals of an action, the latter can rapidly unfold. We need only recall May ’68, at first glance surprising, but actually silently prepared by lucid minorities. On the other hand, we have often seen—and most of all in the Russian Revolution—where even the best opportunities for action lead when a real preliminary theoretical clarification is lacking. Such a clarification does not necessarily take place in books and meetings, yet it must be present in people’s minds. Instead of identifying politics with the public institutions of commodity society, one could identify it with praxis in general. But this praxis must not be abstractly opposed to theory. The theory that we are talking about here is not the servant of praxis, nor its preparation, but an integral part of it. Fetishism is not a set of false representations; it is the ensemble of forms—such as money—in which life really unfolds within a capitalist society. Every step forward with regard to theoretical understanding, as well as its dissemination, is therefore in itself a practical act.

Of course, that cannot be enough. The future forms of praxis will certainly be very diverse and will also involve defensive struggles at the level of material reproduction (such as the struggles against precarious work and against the destruction of the Welfare State). While it is necessary to break with the “politics” that only proposes to defend, within the framework of the market, the interests of social categories constituted by the fetishistic logic of the market itself, along the lines of “purchasing power”, it is still nonetheless necessary to prevent capitalist development from destroying the basis of survival for large sectors of the population and generating new forms of poverty, which are often more the result of exclusion than exploitation. Thus, to be exploited these days has become almost a privilege compared to the fate of the masses of those who have been declared “superfluous” because they “are not profitable” (that is, they cannot be used profitably in commodity production). The reactions of the “superfluous”, however, assume many different forms and may themselves tend towards barbarism. The fact that one is a victim does not confer any guarantee of moral integrity. Today, more than ever before, one fact becomes of the utmost significance: individuals’ behavior in response to the vicissitudes of life in capitalism is not the mechanical result of their “social situation”, their “interests” or their geographical, ethnic or religious background, or their gender or their sexual orientations. We cannot predict anyone’s response to capitalism’s collapse into barbarism. This is not because of an allegedly generalized “individualization” concerning which the sociologists fall all over themselves praising so as not to have to speak of the increasing standardization that it conceals. But the dividing lines are no longer created by capitalist development. Just as barbarism can arise anywhere, in the high schools of Finland and the African shantytowns, among the bobos and the gangbangers in the ghetto, among high-tech soldiers and unarmed rebels, so too can resistance to barbarism and the impulse for social emancipation arise anywhere (although with so much difficulty!), even where one would least expect it. While no single social category has answered the call of those who seek the agent of social emancipation, opposition to the inhuman conditions of life under capitalism nonetheless always reemerges. This landscape that is teeming with false friends and unexpected helpers constitutes the terrain, necessarily only vaguely discerned for the moment, upon which all “political recomposition” must now take place.

[Translated into English in January 2013. Based on the Spanish translation of Anselm Jappe, Crédit à Mort: La décomposition du capitalisme et ses critiques, Éditions Lignes, Fécamp, 2011. Spanish translation by Diego Luis Sanromán: Crédito a muerte: La descomposición del capitalismo y sus críticos, Pepitas de calabaza, Logroño, 2011]

  • 1. “There’s something that astounds me enormously. In fact, I'd even say that it stupefies me, and that’s that at this scientific moment when I'm writing, after countless experiences, after daily scandals, there can still exist in our dear France […] one voter, one single voter – that irrational, inorganic, hallucinatory animal – who consents to put a halt to his affairs, his dreams, and his pleasures in order to vote in favor of someone or something. If we think about it for just one instant, is this surprising phenomenon not one fit to confuse the most subtle philosophers and confound reason? Where is the Balzac who can give us the physiology of the modern voter, or the Charcot who will explain the anatomy and mentality of this incurable lunatic? […] They voted yesterday, they'll vote tomorrow, and they will always vote. Sheep go to the slaughter; they say nothing and they hope for nothing. But at least they don’t vote for the butcher who will kill them and the bourgeois who will eat them. More beastly than the beasts, more sheepish than the sheep, the voter names his butcher and chooses his bourgeois. He has made revolutions to conquer this right. […] As I told you, good man, go home and go on strike” (Published in Le Figaro, November 28, 1888, and republished in O. Mirbeau, La Grève des électeurs, Montreuil-sous-Bois, L’Insomniaque, 2007. English translation available online at: http://www.marxists.org/subject/anarchism/mirbeau/voters-strike.htm). One hundred years after this call for a “voters strike”, it is still possible, and necessary, to repeat the same arguments. Except for a couple of names, one could print the text from which these lines are excerpted and distribute it as a pamphlet; no one would notice that it was not written today but in the early days of the Third Republic. It is obvious that, over the course of more than a century, voters have learned nothing. This fact is certainly hardly encouraging.
  • 2. “The criminal is the voter. […] You make the choice, you the voter, you, who accept what exists; you, who, by way of your ballot, sanction all your misery; you, who, by voting, consecrate all your servitude. […] You are a threat to us, free men, anarchists. You are just as dangerous as the tyrants, as the masters to whom you deliver yourselves, who you elect, who you support, who you feed, who you protect with your bayonets, who you defend with brute force, who you praise with your ignorance, who you legitimate with your ballots and who you impose upon us through your imbecility. […] If candidates lusting for mandates and bursting with stupidity, scratch your back and pinch the ass of your paper sovereignty; if you become intoxicated on the incense and promises in which you are steeped by those who have always betrayed you, who deceived you before and who will deceive you again tomorrow; it is because you are like them. […] Go ahead, vote! Have faith in your delegates, believe in those you have voted for. But stop complaining. The yokes you bear, you took upon yourself. The crimes that you suffer, you commit. You are the master, you are the criminal, and, ironically enough, you are also the slave and the victim.” See: A. Libertad, Le Culte de la charogne. Anarchisme, un état de revolution permanente (1897-1908), Marseilles, Agone, 2006.
  • 3. On the other hand, one of the new realities that we must confront today is the fact that anticapitalist praxis resides in the blurring of borders between supporters and enemies of the system and in the dissemination of fragments of critical thought among numerous individuals who simultaneously participate in the ordinary business of this world: they read Marcuse and work for an advertising firm, they manage a business and they donate money to the Zapatistas, they claim to be anarchists and work as administrators of some kind…. One has to live, of course, but one does not want to be taken for a bobo, either. This involves a veritable “Mithridatism” against the pangs of conscience that might upset one’s existence.