Theory of Destitution

*The following is an extracted section taken from a document called “To Our Friends,” written by The Invisible Committe, published in 2014. I have posted it here to supplement yesterday’s post by Aleksandra Veljkovic that takes a close look at the question of the efficacy of rioting. The article promotes destitution as liberatory political strategy, and there is a link to the page at The Anarchist Library with a copy of “To our Friends.” I am including the section on destitution here, to contribute to filling out the discussion on our blog critically analyzing tactics for social change. 


Theory of Destitution.

Coming out of Argentina, the slogan “¡Que se vayan todos!” jarred the ruling heads all over the world. There’s no counting the number of languages in which we’ve shouted our desire, during the past few years, to destitutethe power in place. And the most surprising thing still is that in several cases we managed to do that. But however fragile the regimes succeeding such “revolutions,” the second part of the slogan, “¡Y que no quede ni uno!” (“And let not a single one remain!”), has gone unheeded: new puppets have taken the places left vacant. The most exemplary case has to be Egypt. Tahrir had Mubarak’s head and the Tamarod movement that of Morsi. Each time, the street demanded a destitution that it didn’t have the strength to organize, so that it was the already organized forces, the Muslim Brotherhood then the army, that usurped that destitution and carried it through to their benefit. A movement that demands is always at a disadvantage opposite a force that acts. We can marvel in passing at how the role of the sovereign and that of the “terrorist” are basically interchangeable, seeing how quickly one transitions from the palaces of power to the basements of its prisons, and vice versa.

So the complaint that is commonly heard among yesterday’s insurgents says: “The revolution was betrayed. We didn’t die to make it possible for a provisional government to organize elections, then a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution that would lay out the modalities of new elections from which a new regime would emerge, which would be almost identical to the previous one. We wanted life to change, and nothing has changed, or very little.” On this point, radicals always give the same explanation: it’s that the people have to govern themselves instead of electing representatives. If revolutions are consistently betrayed this may be the result of fate, but perhaps it’s a sign that some hidden flaws in our idea of revolution condemn it to such an inevitability. One of those flaws is in the fact that we still tend to conceive of revolution as a dialectic between the constituent and the constituted. We still believe in the fable that tells us all constituted power is rooted in a constituent power, that the state emanates from the nation, as the absolute monarch does from God, that beneath the constitution in force there always exists another constitution, an order that’s underlying and transcendent at once, silent normally, but capable at certain moments of flashing into presence. We like to think that “the people” only have to assemble, ideally in front of the parliament, and shout “You don’t represent us!” for the constituent power to magically depose the constituted powers through its simple epiphany. This fiction of the constituent power actually only serves to mask the strictly political, fortuitous origin, the raw coup by which power is instituted. Those who’ve taken power project the source of their authority back onto the social totality which they henceforth control, and in this way legimately silence it in its own name. So it happens that the feat of getting the people fired upon in the name of the people is regularly accomplished. Constituent power is the matador’s costume which the squalid origin of power always sports, the veil that hypnotizes everyone and makes them believe that the constituted power is much more than it is.

Those who propose, like Antonio Negri, to “govern the revolution” only see “constituent struggles” everywhere, from the banlieue riots to the uprisings in the Arab world. A Madrid-based Negriist who supports a hypothetical “constituent process” coming out the movement of the squares, even calls for the creation of “the party of democracy,” “the party of the 99%,” for the purpose of “articulating a new democratic constitution just as ‘ordinary,’ as non-representative as 15M was.” Misdirections of this kind encourage us to reconceive the idea of revolution as pure destitution instead.

To institute or constitute a power is to give it a basis, a foundation, a legitimacy. For an economic, judicial, or police apparatus, it is to ground its fragile existence in a dimension that is beyond it, in a transcendence designed to place it out of reach. Through this operation, what is never anything but a localized, specific, partial entity is elevated to an elsewhere from which it can then claim to encompass the whole. As a constituted thing, a power becomes an order with no outside, an uncontested existence with no counterpart, which can only subject or annihilate. The dialectic of the constituent and the constituted comes to confer a higher meaning on what is never anything but a contingent political form. This is how the Republic becomes the universal banner of an indisputable and eternal human nature, or the caliphate the single locus of community. Constituent power names that monstrous piece of magic that turns the state into that entity that’s never wrong, having its basis in reason; that has no enemies, since to oppose it is to be a criminal; that can do anything, being without honor.

So to destitute power it’s not enough to defeat it in the street, to dismantle its apparatuses, to set its symbols ablaze. To destitute power is to deprive it of its foundation. That is precisely what insurrections do. There the constituted appears as it is, with its thousand maneuvers—clumsy or effective, crude or sophisticated. “The king has no clothes,” one says then, because the constituent veil is in tatters and everyone sees through it. To destitute power is to take away its legitimacy, compel it to recognize its arbitrariness, reveal its contingent dimension. It’s to show that it holds together only in situation, through what it deploys in the way of strategems, methods, tricks—to turn it into a temporary configuration of things which, like so many others, have to fight and scheme in order to survive. It’s to make the government lower itself to the level of the insurgents, who can no longer be “monsters, criminals,” or “terrorists” but simply enemies. To force the police to be nothing more henceforth than a gang, and the justice system a criminal association. In insurrection, the power in place is just one force among others from the perspective of common struggle, and no longer that meta-force which regiments, commands, or condemns all potentialities. All motherfuckers have addresses. To destitute power is to bring it back down to earth.

Whatever the outcome of the street confrontations, insurrection has always-already torn holes in the tight fabric of beliefs that enable government to be exercised. That is why those in a hurry to bury the insurrection don’t waste their time trying to mend the broken foundation of an already invalidated legitimacy. They attempt instead to infuse the movement itself with a new claim to legitimacy, that is, a new claim to be founded on reason, to preside over the strategic plane where the different forces clash. The legitimacy of “the people,” “the oppressed,” “the 99%” is the Trojan horse by which the constituent is smuggled back into insurrectionary destitution. This is the surest method for undoing an insurrection—one that doesn’t even require defeating it in the streets. To make the destitution irreversible, therefore, we must begin by abandoning our own legitimacy. We have to give up the idea that one makes the revolution in the name of something, that there’s a fundamentally just and innocent entity which the revolutionary forces would have the task of representing. One doesn’t bring power back down to earth in order to raise oneself above the heavens. Destituting this epoch’s specific form of power requires, for a start, that one challenge the notion that men need to be governed, either democratically by themselves or hierarchically by others, returning it to its status as a hypothesis, not a “self-evident” truth. The assumption goes back at least to the birth of politics in Greece—its power is such that even the Zapatistas have gathered their “autonomous communes” under the umbrella of “good-government councils.” A definite anthropology is at work here, which is found in the anarchist individualist aspiring to the full satisfaction of their personal passions and needs and in seemingly more pessimistic conceptions, seeing man as a voracious beast who can only be kept from devouring his neighbor by a coercive power. Machiavelli, for whom men are “ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, fearful of danger and greedy for gain,” is in agreement on this point with the founders of American democracy: “In contriving a system of government, man ought to be supposed a knave,” asserted Hamilton. In every case, one starts from the idea that the political order is designed to contain a more or less bestial human nature, where the Self faces the others and the world, where there are only separate bodies that must be bound together through some artifice. As Marshall Sahlins has shown, this idea of a human nature that “culture” must contain is a Western illusion. It expresses our misery, and not that of all earth dwellers. “For the greater part of humanity, self-interest as we know it is unnatural in the normative sense: it is considered madness, witchcraft or some such grounds for ostracism, execution or at least therapy. Rather than expressing a pre-social human nature, such avarice is generally taken for a loss of humanity.”

But in order to destitute government, it’s not enough to criticize this anthropology and its prev sumed “realism.” One must find a way to grasp it from the outside, to affirm a different plane of perception. For we do move on itdifferent plane. From the relative outside of what we’re experiencing, of what we’re trying to construct, we’ve arrived at this conviction: the question of government only arises from a void—more often than not, from a void it was obliged to create. Power must have sufficiently detached itself from the world, it must have created a sufficient void around the individual, or within him, created a deserted space between beings large enough, so that it becomes a question of organizing all these disparate elements that nothing connects any more, of reassembling the separate elements as separate. Power creates emptiness. Emptiness attracts power.

Leaving the paradigm of government means starting politically from the opposite hypothesis. There is no empty space, everything is inhabited, each one of us is the gathering and crossing point of quantities of affects, lineages, histories, and significations, of material flows that exceed us. The world doesn’t environ us, it passes through us. What we inhabit inhabits us. What surrounds us constitutes us. We don’t belong to ourselves. We are always-already spread through whatever we attach ourselves to. It’s not a question of forming a void from which we could finally manage to catch hold of all that escapes us, but of learning to better inhabit what is there, which implies perceiving it—and there’s nothing certain about that for the myopic children of democracy. Perceiving a world peopled not with things but with forces, not with subjects but with powers, not with bodies but with bonds.

It’s by virtue of their plenitude that forms of life will complete the destitution.

Here, subtraction is affirmation and affirmation is an element of attack.

Jeremiah Morelock

Jeremiah Morelock, PhD is an Adjunct Instructor of Sociology at Boston College. He is also the Director of the Critical Theory Research Network. His research focuses on political themes in biological horror and science fiction films. He is editor of Critical Theory and Authoritarian Populism (University of Westminster, 2018).
Jeremiah Morelock

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