Fighting in the New Terrain: What's Changed Since the 20th Century
Overture: The More Things Change…
Once, the basic building block of patriarchy was the nuclear family, and calling for its abolition was a radical demand. Now families are increasingly fragmented—yet has this fundamentally expanded women’s power or children’s autonomy?
Once, the mainstream media consisted of only a few television and radio channels. These have not only multiplied into infinity but are being supplanted by forms of media such as Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter. But has this done away with passive consumption? And how much more control over these formats do users really have, structurally speaking?
Once, movies represented the epitome of a society based on spectatorship; today, video games let us star in our own shoot-'em-up epics, and the video game industry does as much business as Hollywood. In an audience watching a movie, everyone is alone; the most you can do is boo if the storyline outrages you. In the new video games, on the other hand, you can interact with virtual versions of other players in real time. But is this greater freedom? Is it more togetherness?
Once, one could speak of a social and cultural mainstream, and subculture itself seemed subversive. Now “diversity” is at a premium for our rulers, and subculture is an essential motor of consumer society: the more identities, the more markets.
Once, people grew up in the same community as their parents and grandparents, and travel could be considered a destabilizing force interrupting static social and cultural configurations. Today life is characterized by constant movement as people struggle to keep up with the demands of the market; in place of repressive configurations, we have permanent transience, universal atomization.
Once, laborers stayed at one workplace for years or decades, developing the social ties and common reference points that made old-fashioned unions possible. Today, employment is increasingly temporary and precarious, as more and more workers shift from factories and unions to service industry and compulsory flexibility.
Once, wage labor was a distinct sphere of life, and it was easy to recognize and rebel against the ways our productive potential was exploited. Now every aspect of existence is becoming “work,” in the sense of activity that produces value in the capitalist economy: glancing at one’s email account, one increases the capital of those who sell advertisements. In place of distinct specialized roles in the capitalist economy, we increasingly see flexible, collective production of capital, much of which goes unpaid.
Once, the world was full of dictatorships in which power was clearly wielded from above and could be contested as such. Now these are giving way to democracies that seem to include more people in the political process, thus legitimizing the repressive powers of the state.
Once, the essential unit of state power was the nation, and nations competed among themselves to assert their individual interests. In the era of capitalist globalization, the interests of state power transcend national boundaries, and the dominant mode of conflict is not war but policing. This is occasionally employed against rogue nations, but continuously implemented against people.
Once, one could draw lines, however arbitrary, between the so-called First World and Third World. Today the First World and the Third World coexist in every metropolis, and white supremacy is administered in the United States by an African-American president.
Fighting in the New Terrain
At the turn of the century, we could only imagine anarchism as a desertion from
an all-powerful social order.
Ten years ago, as starry-eyed young maniacs, we published Days of War, Nights of Love, unexpectedly one of the best-selling anarchist books of the following decade. Although controversial at the time, in retrospect it was fairly representative of what many anarchists were calling for: immediacy, decentralization, do-it-yourself resistance to capitalism. We added some more provocative elements: anonymity, plagiarism, crime, hedonism, the refusal of work, the delegitimization of history in favor of myth, the idea that revolutionary struggle could be a romantic adventure.
Our approach was shaped by a specific historical context. The Soviet bloc had recently collapsed and the impending political, economic, and ecological crises had yet to come into view; capitalist triumphalism was at its peak. We focused on undermining middle class values because they seemed to define everyone’s aspirations; we presented anarchist struggle as an individual project because it was difficult to imagine anything else. As the anti-globalization movement gathered momentum in the US and gave way to the anti-war movement, we came to conceptualize struggle more collectively, though still as originating from a personal decision to oppose a firmly rooted status quo.
Today, much of what we proclaimed has become passé. As capitalism has shifted into a state of perpetual crisis and technological innovations have penetrated deeper into every aspect of life, instability, decentralization, and anonymity have come to characterize our society without bringing the world of our dreams any closer.
Radicals often think they are out in a wasteland, disconnected from society, when in fact they are its cutting edge—though not necessarily moving towards the goals they espouse. As we later argued in Rolling Thunder #5, resistance is the motor of history: it drives social, political, and technological developments, forcing the prevailing order to innovate constantly in order to outflank or absorb opposition. Thus we can contribute to tremendous transformations without ever achieving our object.
This is not to credit radicals with the agency to determine world events, so much as to assert that we often find ourselves unconsciously on their cusp. Measured against the infinities of history, all agency is infinitesimal—but the very notion of political theory presumes that it is still possible to utilize this agency meaningfully.
When we strategize for individual campaigns, we have to take care not to make demands that can be defused by partial reforms, lest our oppressors neutralize us by simply granting them. Some examples of easily co-opted radical programs are so obvious that it is practically vulgar to point them out: bicycle fetishism, “sustainable” technology, “buying local” and other forms of ethical consumerism, volunteer work that mitigates the suffering caused by global capitalism without challenging its roots.
But this phenomenon can also occur on a structural level. We should look at the ways we have called for broad social change that could take place without shaking the foundations of capitalism and hierarchy—so that next time our efforts can take us all the way.
Today it must become a line of flight out of a collapsing world.
Not Working—Did It Work?
The defining provocation of our early years was to take literally the Situationists’ dictum NEVER WORK. A few of us decided to test out on our own skin whether this was actually possible. This bit of bravado showed all the genius of untutored youth, and all the perils. Though countless others had trodden this road before, for us it was as if we were the first primates to be shot into space. In any case, we were doing something, taking the dream of revolution seriously as a project one might initiate in one’s own life immediately, with—as we used to say—an aristocratic disdain for consequences.
It’s tempting to brush this off as mere performance art. Yet we have to understand it as an early attempt to answer the question that still faces would-be revolutionaries in the US and Western Europe: What could interrupt our obedience? Contemporary insurrectionists are attempting to ask this same question now, though the answers many of them offer are equally limited. By themselves, neither voluntary unemployment nor gratuitous vandalism seem to be capable of jerking society into a revolutionary situation. Despite everything, we stand by our initial hunch that it will take a new way of living to bring about such a situation; it’s not just a matter of putting in enough hours at the same old tasks. The essential fabric of our society—the curtain that stands between us and another world—is above all the good behavior of exploited and excluded alike.
Within a decade, history rendered our experiment obsolete, perversely granting our demand for an unemployable class. US unemployment rates, alleged to be at 4% in the year 2000, had climbed to 10% by the end of 2009—only counting people known to be actively looking for work. The excess of consumer society once offered dropouts a certain margin of error; the economic crisis eroded this and gave a decidedly involuntary flavor to joblessness.
It turns out capitalism has no more use for us than we have for it. This doesn’t just go for anarchist dropouts, but for millions of workers in the US. Despite the economic crisis, major corporations are currently reporting enormous earnings—but instead of using this income to hire more employees, they’re investing in foreign markets, purchasing new technology to reduce their need for employees, and paying out dividends to stockholders. What’s good for General Motors is not good for the country after all; the most profitable companies in the US right now are shifting both production and consumption to “developing markets” overseas.
In this context, dropout culture looks a bit like a voluntary austerity program; it’s convenient for the wealthy if we reject consumer materialism, since there’s not enough to go around anyway. In the late 20th century, when the majority of people identified with their jobs, refusing to pursue employment as self-realization expressed a rejection of capitalist values. Now erratic employment and identification with one’s leisure activities rather than one’s career path have been normalized as an economic position rather than a political one.
Capitalism is also incorporating our assertion that people should act according to their consciences instead of for a wage. In an economy full of opportunities to sell one’s labor, it makes sense to emphasize the importance of other motivations for activity; in a precarious economy, being willing to work for free has different implications. The state increasingly relies on the same do-it-yourself ethic that once animated the punk underground to offset the deleterious effects of capitalism. It is cheaper to let environmentalists volunteer to clean up the BP oil spill than to pay employees to do this, for example. The same goes for Food Not Bombs if it is treated as a charity program rather than a way of establishing subversive flows of resources and camaraderie.
Today the challenge is not to persuade people to refuse to sell their labor, but to demonstrate how a redundant class can survive and resist. Unemployment we have in abundance—we need to interrupt the processes that produce poverty.
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