Saturday, August 10, 2013


It is theoretical weekends and I am in a bit of a hurry, so I am going to print something about which I know nothing at all.  The title struck me as interesting as did the first paragraph, so, that was enough for yours truly.  We shall see together if reading this is/was worth our while.

This is taken from something called either Make Worlds or not Yes, beats me.

Virtuosity and Revolution

Nothing appears so enigmatic today as the question of what it means to act. This issue seems both enigmatic and out of reach--up in the heavens, one might say. If nobody asks me what political action is, I seem to know; but if I have to explain it to somebody who asks, this presumed knowledge evaporates into incoherence. And yet what notion is more familiar in people's everyday speech than action? Why has the obvious become clothed in mystery? Why is it so puzzling?
The answer is not to be found in the customary realm of ready-made responses: the present unfavorable power balance, the continuing echo of past defeats, the resignation that postmodern ideology endlessly foments. All these do count, of course, but in themselves they explain nothing. Rather, they confuse, because they foster a belief that we are going through a dark tunnel at the end of which everything will go back to being the way it was. That is not the case. The fact is that the paralysis of action relates back to very basic aspects of the contemporary experience. It is there that we have to excavate, in the knowledge that these aspects represent not some unfortunate deviation but an unavoidable backdrop. In order to break the spell, we need to elaborate a model of action that will enable action to draw nourishment precisely from what is today creating its blockage. The interdiction itself has to be transformed into a laissez-passer.
According to a long tradition of thought, the realm of political action can be denned fairly precisely by two boundaries. The first relates to labor, to its taciturn and instrumental character, to that automatism that makes of it a repetitive and predictable process. The second relates to pure thought, to the solitary and nonappearing quality of its activity. Political action is unlike labor in that its sphere of intervention is social relations, not natural materials. It modifies the context within which it is inscribed, rather than creates new objects to fill it. Unlike intellectual reflection, action is public, geared to exteriorization, to contingency, to the hustle and bustle of the multitude. This is what the long tradition teaches us. But we cannot necessarily go along with this definition any longer. The customary frontiers separating Intellect, Work, and Action (or, if you prefer, theory, poiesis, and praxis) have given way, and everywhere we see the signs of incursions and crossovers.
In the pages that follow, I will propose first that Work has absorbed the distinctive traits of political action and second that this annexation has been made possible by the intermeshing between modern forms of production and an Intellect that has become public--in other words, that has erupted into the world of appearances. Finally, what has provoked the eclipse of Action has been precisely the symbiosis of Work with "general intellect," or "general social knowledge," which, according to Marx, stamps its form on "the process of social life itself."11 will then advance two hypotheses. The first is that the public and worldly character of the nous--or the material potentiality (potenza) of general intellect-- has to be our starting point for a redefinition of political praxis and its salient problems: power, government, democracy, violence, and so on. To put it briefly, a coalition between Intellect and Action is counterposed to the coalition between Intellect and Work. Second, whereas the symbiosis of knowledge and production produces an extreme, anomalous, but nonetheless flourishing legitimation for a pact of obedience to the State, the intermeshing between general intellect and political Action enables us to glimpse the possibility of a non-State public sphere.
Activity without Work
The dividing line between Work and Action, which was always hazy, has now disappeared altogether. In the opinion of Hannah Arendt--whose positions I would here seek to challenge -- this hybridization is due to the fact that modern political praxis has internalized the model of Work and come to look increasingly like a process of making (with a "product" that is, by turns, history, the State, the party, and so forth).2 This diagnosis, however, must be inverted and set on its feet. The important thing is not that political action may be conceived as a form of producing, but that the producing has embraced within itself many of the prerogatives of action. In the post-Fordist era, we have Work taking on many of the attributes of Action: unforeseeability, the ability to begin something new, linguistic "performances," and an ability to range among alternative possibilities. There is one inevitable consequence to all this. In relation to a Work that is loaded with "action-ist" characteristics, the transition to Action comes to be seen as somehow falling short, or, in the best of cases, as a superfluous duplication. It appears to be falling short, for the most part: in its structuring according to a rudimentary logic of means and ends, politics offers a communicative network and a cognitive content that are weaker and poorer than those to be found within the present-day process of production. Action appears as less complex than Work, or as too similar to it, and either way it appears as not very desirable.
In "Results of the Immediate Process of Production" (but also, in almost identical words, in Theories of Surplus Value), Marx analyzes intellectual labor and distinguishes two principal kinds. On the one hand, there is the immaterial activity that has as its result "commodities which exist separately from the producer..., e.g. books, paintings and all products of art as distinct from the artistic achievement of the practising artist." On the other hand, Marx defines those activities in which "the product is not separable from the act of producing"3--in other words, activities that find their fulfillment in themselves, without being objectivized in a finished work existing outside and beyond them. The second kind of intellectual labor may be exemplified by "performing artists," such as pianists or dancers, but also includes more generally various kinds of people whose work involves a virtuosic perform.ance, such as orators, teachers, doctors, and priests. In short, this second kind of intellectual labor refers to a wide cross section of human society, ranging from Glenn Gould to the impeccable butler of the classic English novel.
Of the two categories of intellectual labor, for Marx only the first appears to fit fully with the definition of "productive labor" (wherein productive labor is defined only as work that procures surplus value, not work that is merely useful or merely tiring). Virtuosos, who limit themselves to playing a "musical score" and leave no lasting traces, on the one hand "are of microscopic significance when compared with the mass of capitalist production" and on the other are to be considered as "wage-labour that is not at the same time productive labour."4 Although it is easy to understand Marx's observations on the quantitative irrelevance of virtuosos, one experiences some perplexity at his observation that they are "nonproductive." In principle, there is nothing to say that a dancer does not give rise to a surplus value. However, for Marx, the absence of a finished work that lives on beyond the activity of performance puts modern intellectual virtuosity on a par with actions undertaken in the provision of a personal service: services that are seen as being nonproductive, because in order to obtain them one spends income, not capital. The "performing artist," put down and parasitic, is thus consigned to the limbo of service work.
The activities in which "the product is not separable from the act of producing" have a mercurial and ambiguous status that is not always and not completely grasped by the critique of political economy. The reason for the difficulty is simple. Well before becoming swallowed up within capitalist production, virtuosity was the architrave of ethics and politics. Furthermore, it was what qualified Action, as distinct from (and in fact opposed to) Work. Aristotle writes that the aim of production is different from production itself, whereas the aim of action could not be, inasmuch as virtuous conduct is an end in itself.5 Related immediately to the search for the "good life," activity that manifests itself as a "conduct," and that does not have to pursue an extrinsic aim, coincides precisely with political praxis. According to Arendt, the performing arts, which do not lead to the creation of any finished work, "have indeed a strong affinity with politics. Performing artists-- dancers, play-actors, musicians, and the like--need an audience to show their virtuosity, just as acting men need the presence of others before whom they can appear; both need a publicly organized space for their 'work,' and both depend upon others for the performance itself."6 The pianist and the dancer stand precariously balanced on a watershed that divides two antithetical destinies: on the one hand, they may become examples of "wage-labour that is not at the same time productive labour"; on the other, they have a quality that is suggestive of political action. Their nature is essentially amphibian. So far, however, each of the potential developments inherent in the figure of the performing artist--poiesis or praxis, Work or Action-- seems to exclude its opposite. The status of waged laborer tends to militate against political vocation, and vice versa. From a certain point onward, however, the alternative changes into a complicity--the aut-aut gives way to a paradoxical et-et: the virtuoso works (in fact she or he is a worker par excellence) not despite the fact, but precisely because of the fact that her or his activity is closely reminiscent of political praxis. The metaphorical tearing apart comes to an end, and in this new situation we find no real help in the polar oppositions of Marx and Arendt.
Within post-Fordist organization of production, activity-without-a-finished-work moves from being a special and problematic case to becoming the prototype of waged labor in general. There is not much point, here, in going back over the detailed analyses that have already been conducted in other essays in this volume: a few basic points will have to suffice. When labor carries out tasks of overseeing and coordination, in other words when it "steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor,"7 its function consists no longer in the carrying out of a single particular objective, but in the modulating (as well as the varying and intensifying) of social cooperation, in other words, that ensemble of relations and systemic connections that as of now are "the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth."8 This modulation takes place through linguistic services that, far from giving rise to a final product, exhaust themselves in the communicative interaction that their own "performance" brings about.
Post-Fordist activity presupposes and, at the same time, unceasingly re-creates the "public realm" (the space of cooperation, precisely) that Arendt describes as the indispensable prerequisite of both the dancer and the politician. The "presence of others" is both the instrument and the object of labor; therefore, the processes of production always require a certain degree of virtuosity, or, to put it another way, they involve what are really political actions. Mass intellectuality (a rather clumsy term that I use to indicate not so much a specific stratum of jobs, but more a quality of the whole of post-Fordist labor power) is called upon to exercise the art of the possible, to deal with the unforeseen, to profit from opportunities. Now that the slogan of labor that produces surplus value has become, sarcastically, "politics first," politics in the narrow sense of the term becomes discredited or paralyzed.
In any case, what other meaning can we give to the capitalist slogan of "total quality" if not the attempt to set to work all those aspects that traditionally it has shut out of work--in other words, the ability to communicate and the taste for Action? And how is it possible to encompass within the productive process the entire experience of the single individual, except by committing her or him to a sequence of variations on a theme, performances, improvisations? Such a sequence, in a parody of self-realization, represents the true acme of subjugation. There is none so poor as the one who sees her or his own ability to relate to the "presence of others," or her or his own possession of language, reduced to waged labor.
Public Intellect, the Virtuosos' Score
What is the "score" that post-Fordist workers have unceasingly had to play from the moment they were called upon to give proof of virtuosity? The answer, stripped to basics, is something like this: the sui generis "score" of present-day labor is Intellect qua public Intellect, general intellect, global social knowledge, shared linguistic ability. One could also say that production demands virtuosity and thus intro-jects many traits that are peculiar to political action, precisely and sdlely because Intellect has become the principal productive force, premise, and epicenter of every poiesis.
Hannah Arendt rejects out of hand the very idea of a public intellect. In her judgment, reflection and thought (in a word, the "life of the mind") bear no relation to that "care for common affairs" that involves an exhibition to the eyes of others. The insertion of intellect into the world of appearances is first sketched by Marx in the concept of "real abstraction," and then, more important, that of general intellect. Whereas real abstraction is an empirical fact (the exchange of equivalents, for example) that has the rarefied structure of pure thought, general intellect marks rather the stage in which pure thought as such comes to have the value and the incidence typical of facts (we could say the stage at which mental abstractions are immediately, in themselves, real abstractions).
I should add, however, that Marx conceives general intellect as "a scientific capacity" objectified within the system of machines, and thus as fixed capital. He thereby reduces the external or public quality of intellect to the technological application of natural sciences to the process of production. The crucial step consists rather in highlighting to the full the way in which general intellect, rather than being a machina machinarum, comes to present itself finally as a direct attribute of living labor, as a repertoire of a diffuse intelligentsia, as a "score" that creates a common bond among the members of a multitude. Furthermore, we are forced into this position by our analysis of post-Fordist production: here a decisive role is played by conceptual constellations and schemes of thinking that cannot ever be recuperated within fixed capital, given that they are actually inseparable from the interaction of a plurality of living subjects. Obviously, what is in question here is not the scientific erudition of the particular worker. What comes to the fore-- to achieve the status of a public resource--is only (but that "only" is everything) the more general aspects of the mind: the faculty of language, the ability to learn, the ability to abstract and correlate, and access to self-reflection.
By general intellect we have to understand, literally, intellect in general. Now, it goes without saying that Intellect-in-general is a "score" only in the broadest of senses. It is certainly not some kind of specific composition (let us say, Bach's Goldberg Variations) as played by a top-notch performer (let us say Glenn Gould, for example), but rather a simple faculty. It is the faculty that makes possible all composition (not to mention all experience). Virtuosic performance, which never gives rise to a finished work, in this case cannot even presuppose it. It consists in making Intellect resonate precisely as attitude. Its only "score" is, as such, the condition of possibility of all "scores." This virtuosity is nothing unusual, nor does it require some special talent. One need only think of the process whereby someone who speaks draws on the inexhaustible potential of language (the opposite of a defined "work") to create an utterance that is entirely of the moment and unrepeatable.
Intellect becomes public when it joins together with Work; however, once it is conjoined with Work, its characteristic publicness is also inhibited and distorted. Ever anew called upon to act as a force of production, it is ever anew suppressed as public sphere, as possible root of political Action, as different constitutional principle.
General intellect is the foundation of a kind of social cooperation that is broader than the social cooperation based specifically on labor--broader and, at the same time, entirely heterogeneous. Whereas the interconnections of the process of production are based on a technical and hierarchical division of functions, the acting-in-concert implied by general intellect takes as its starting point a common participation in the "life of the mind," in other words a prior sharing of communicative and cognitive attitudes. The excess cooperation of Intellect, however, rather than eliminating the coercions of capitalist production, figures as capital's most eminent resource. Its heterogeneity has neither voice nor visibility. Rather, because the exteriority of Intellect, the fact that it appears, becomes a technical prerequisite of Work, the acting-in-concert outside of labor that it engenders in its turn becomes subjected to the kinds of criteria and hierarchies that characterize the factory regime.
The principal consequences of this paradoxical situation are twofold. The first relates to the form and nature of political power. The peculiar publicness of Intellect, deprived of any expression of its own by that labor that nonetheless claims it as a productive force, manifests itself indirectly within the realm of the State through the hypertrophic growth of administrative apparatuses. Administration has come to replace the political, parliamentary system at the heart of the State, but it has done this precisely because it represents an authoritarian concretion of general intellect, the point of fusion between knowledge and command, the reverse image of excess cooperation. It is true that for decades there have been indications of a growing and determining weight of the bureaucracy within the "body politic," the predominance of decree over law. Now, however, we face a situation that is qualitatively new. What we have here is no longer the familiar process of rationalization of the State, but rather a Statization of Intellect. The old expression raison d'Etat for the first time acquires a nonmetaphorical meaning. If Hobbes and the other great theoreticians of "political unity" saw the principle of legitimation of absolute power in the transfer of the natural right of each single individual to the person of the sovereign, nowadays we might speak of a transfer of Intellect, or rather of its immediate and irreducible publicness, to State administration.
The second consequence relates to the effective nature of the post-Fordist regime. Because the public realm opened by Intellect is every time anew reduced to labor cooperation, in other words to a tight-knit web of hierarchical relations, the interdictive function that comes with "presence of others" in all concrete operations of production takes the form of personal dependency. Putting it another way, virtuosic activity comes across as universal servile labor. The affinity between the pianist and the waiter that Marx glimpsed finds an unexpected confirmation in which all wage labor has something of the "performing artist" about it. When "the product is not separable from the act of producing," this act calls into question the self of the producer and, above all, the relationship between that self and the self of the one who has ordered it or to whom it is directed. The setting-to-work of what is common, in other words, of Intellect and Language, although on the one hand renders fictitious the impersonal technical division of labor, on the other hand, given that this commonality is not translated into a "public sphere" (that is, into a political community), leads to a stubborn personalization of subjugation.
The key to political action (or rather the only possibility of extracting it from its present state of paralysis) consists in developing the publicness of Intellect outside of Work, and in opposition to it. The issue here has two distinct profiles, which are, however, strictly complementary. On the one hand, general intellect can only affirm itself as an autonomous public sphere, thus avoiding the "transfer" of its own potential into the absolute power of Administration, if it cuts the linkage that binds it to the production of commodities and wage labor. On the other hand, the subversion of capitalist relations of production henceforth develops only with the institution of a non-State public sphere, a political community that has as its hinge general intellect. The salient characteristics of the post-Fordist experience (servile virtuosity, the valorization even of the faculty of language, the necessary relation with the "presence of others," and so forth) postulate as a conflictual response nothing less than a radically new form of democracy.
I use the term Exodus here to define mass defection from the State, the alliance between general intellect and political Action, and a movement toward the public sphere of Intellect. The term is not at all conceived as some defensive existential strategy--it is neither exiting on tiptoe through the back door nor a search for sheltering hideaways. Quite the contrary: what I mean by Exodus is a full-fledged model of action, capable of confronting the challenges of modern politics--in short, capable of confronting the great themes articulated by Hobbes, Rousseau, Lenin, and Schmitt (I am thinking here of crucial couplings such as command/obedience, public/private, friend/enemy, consensus/violence, and so forth). Today, just as happened in the seventeenth century under the spur of the civil wars, a realm of common affairs has to be defined from scratch. Any such definition must draw out the opportunities for liberation that are to be found in taking command of this novel interweaving among Work, Action, and Intellect, which up until now we have only suffered.
Exodus is the foundation of a Republic. The very idea of "republic," however, requires a taking leave of State judicature: if Republic, then no longer State. The political action of the Exodus consists, therefore, in an engaged withdrawal. Only those who open a way of exit for themselves can do the founding; but, by the opposite token, only those who do the founding will succeed in finding the parting of the waters by which they will be able to leave Egypt. In the remainder of this essay, I shall attempt to circumstantiate the theme of Exodus--in other words, action as engaged withdrawal (or founding leave-taking)--through consideration of a series of key words: Disobedience, Intemperance, Multitude, Soviet, Example, Right of Resistance, and Miracle.
The Virtue of Intemperance
"Civil disobedience" is today the sine qua non of political action--but only if it is conceived differently and freed from the terms of the liberal tradition within which it is generally encapsulated. Here I am not talking about rescinding particular laws because they are incoherent with or contradict other fundamental norms, for example, with the provisions of the Constitution; in such a case, nonobedience would imply only a deeper loyalty to State command. Quite the contrary, through myths that may be its single manifestations, the radical Disobedience that interests me here must bring into question the State's very faculty of command. According to Hobbes, with the institution of the body politic we put an obligation on ourselves to obey even before we know what that obedience is going to entail: "Our obligation to civill obedience, by vertue whereof the civill Lawes are valid, is before all civill Law."9 This is why one will find no specific law that says explicitly that one is not to rebel. If the unconditional acceptance of command were not already presupposed, the actual provisions of the law (including, obviously, the one that says, "Thou shalt not rebel") would have no validity. Hobbes maintains that the original bond of obedience derives from natural law, in other words, from a common interest in self-preservation and security. He hastens to add, however, that this natural law, or the Superlaw that requires obedience to all the commands of the sovereign, becomes effectively a law only when one emerges from the state of nature, in other words, when the State is already instituted. What we have here is a paradox: the obligation to obedience is both cause and effect of the existence of the State; it is maintained by that of which it is also the foundation; it simultaneously precedes and follows the formation of the "supreme power." Political Action takes as its target the preliminary and content-less obedience that provides the only basis for the subsequent development of the baleful dialectic of acquiescence and "transgression." In contravening a particular decree on the dismantling of the health service, or on the banning of immigration, one goes right back to the hidden presupposition of every imperative prescription and saps the force of that prescription. Radical Disobedience is also "before all civill Law," inasmuch as it not only violates the laws, but also challenges the very foundation of their validity.
In order to justify the prior obligation to obedience, an end-of-the-millennium Hobbes, rather than appealing to a "natural law," would have to invoke the technical rationality of the process of production--in other words, "general intellect" precisely as despotic organization of waged labor. In the same way as we saw with "natural law," the "law of general intellect" also has a paradoxical structure: whereas on the one hand it seems to provide the basis of the State Administration's powers of command, demanding the respect of any decision that it may happen to take, on the other hand, it appears as a real law only because (and after) Administration already exercises an absolute command.
Radical Disobedience breaks this circle within which public Intellect figures simultaneously as both premise and consequence of the State. It breaks it with the double movement to which I referred previously. Most particularly, it highlights and develops positively the aspects of general intellect that are at odds with the continued existence of waged labor. On this basis, it sets in motion the practical potentiality of Intellect against the decision-making faculty of Administration. Delinked from the production of surplus value, Intellect becomes no longer the "natural law" of late capitalism, but the matrix of a non-State Republic.
The breeding ground of Disobedience consists of the social conflicts that manifest themselves not only and not so much as protest, but most particularly as defection -- or, to put it in the terms used by Albert 0. Hirschman, not as voice but as exit.10 Nothing is less passive than flight. The "exit" modifies the conditions within which the conflict takes place, rather than presupposes it as an irremovable horizon; it changes the context within which a problem arises, rather than deals with the problem by choosing one or another of the alternative solutions already on offer. In short, the "exit" can be seen as a free-thinking inventiveness that changes the rules of the game and disorients the enemy. One has only to think of the mass flight from the factory regime set in motion by the workers of North America halfway through the nineteenth century as they headed off to the "frontier" in order to colonize low-cost land. They were seizing the truly extraordinary opportunity of making their own conditions of departure reversible.11 Something similar happened in the late 1970s in Italy, when a youthful workforce, contradicting all expectations, decided that it preferred temporary and part-time jobs to regular jobs in big factories. Albeit only for a brief period, occupational mobility functioned as a political resource, bringing about the eclipse of industrial discipline and permitting a certain degree of self-determination. In this case too, preestablished roles were deserted and a "territory" unknown to the official maps was colonized.
Defection stands at the opposite pole to the desperate notion of "You have nothing to lose but your chains." It is postulated, rather, on the basis of a latent wealth, on an abundance of possibilities--in short, on the principle of the tertium datur. But how are we to define, in the post-Fordist era, the virtual abundance that favors the escape option at the expense of the resistance option? What I am talking about here is obviously not a spatial "frontier" but an abundance of knowledges, communication, and acting-in-concert implied by the publicness of general intellect. The act of collective imagination that we call "defection" gives an independent, affirmative, high-profile expression to this abundance, thus stopping its being transferred into the power of State administration.
Radical Disobedience involves, therefore, a complex ensemble of positive actions. It is not a resentful omission, but a committed undertaking. The sovereign command is not carried out, because, above all, we are too busy figuring out how to pose differently the question that it would interdict.
We have to bear in mind the distinction--fairly clear in ancient ethics, but subsequently almost always overlooked--between "intemperance" and "incontinence." Incontinence is a vulgar unruliness, disregard for laws, a giving way to immediate appetite. Intemperance is something very different--it is the opposition of an intellectual understanding to given ethical and political standards. As a guiding principle of action, a "theoretical" premise is adopted in place of a "practical" premise, with consequences for the harmony of societal life that may be dangerous and deviant. The intemperate person, according to Aristotle, is possessed of a vice, because he or she counterposes two kinds of discourse that are essentially diverse.12 The intemperate is not ignorant of the law, nor does he or she merely oppose it;rather, the intemperate seriously discredits it, inasmuch as he or she derives a public conduct from that pure Intellect that should operate within its own realm and should not interfere with the affairs of the polls.
In Intemperance the Exodus has its cardinal virtue. The preexisting obligation of obedience to the State is not disregarded for reasons of incontinence, but in the name of the systematic interconnection between Intellect and political Action. Each constructive defection plays upon the visible reality of general intellect, drawing from it practical consequences that break with "civil laws." In the intemperate recourse to Intellect-in-general there is finally outlined a possibility of a nonservile virtuosity.
Multitude, General Intellect, Republic
The decisive political counterposition is what opposes the Multitude to the People. The concept of "people" in Hobbes (but also in a large part of the democratic-socialist tradition) is tightly correlated to the existence of the State and is in fact a reverberation of it: "The People is somewhat that is one, having one will, and to whom one action may be attributed; none of these can properly be said of a Multitude. The People rules in all Governments," and reciprocally, "the King is the People."13 The progressivist notion of "popular sovereignty" has as its bitter counterpoint an identification of the people with the sovereign, or, if you prefer, the popularity of the king. The multitude, on the other hand, shuns political unity, is recalcitrant to obedience, never achieves the status of juridical personage, and is thus unable to make promises, to make pacts, or to acquire and transfer rights. It is anti-State, but, precisely for this reason, it is also antipopular: the citizens, when they rebel against the State, are "the Multitude against the People."14 For the seventeenth-century apologists for sovereign power, "multitude" was a purely negative defining concept: a regurgitation of the state of nature within civil society, a continuing but somewhat unformed leftover, a metaphor of possible crisis. Liberal thinking, then, tamed the unrest provoked by the "many" through the dichotomy between public and private: the Multitude is "private" both in the literal sense of the term, being deprived of both face and voice, and in the juridical sense of being extraneous to the sphere of common affairs. In its turn, democratic-socialist theory produced the dichotomy "collective/individual": on the one hand, the collectivity of "producers" (the ultimate incarnation of the People) comes to be identified with the State, be it with Reagan or with Honecker;on the other, the Multitude is confined to the corral of "individual" experience-- in other words, condemned to impotence.
We can say that this destiny of marginality has now come to an end. The Multitude, rather than constituting a "natural" ante-fact, presents itself as a historical result, a mature arrival point of the transformations that have taken place within the productive process and the forms of life. The "Many" are erupting onto the scene, and they stand there as absolute protagonists while the crisis of the society of Work is being played out. Post-Fordist social cooperation, in eliminating the frontier between production time and personal time, not to mention the distinction between professional qualities and political aptitudes, creates a new species, which makes the old dichotomies of "public/private" and "collective/individual" sound farcical. Neither "producers" nor "citizens," the modern virtuosi attain at last the rank of Multitude.
What we have here is a lasting and continuing reality, not some noisy intermezzo. Our new Multitude is not a whirlpool of atoms that "still" lacks unity, but a form of political existence that takes as its starting point a One that is radically heterogeneous to the State: public Intellect. The Many do not make alliances, nor do they transfer rights to the sovereign, because they already have a shared "score"; they never converge into a "general will" because they already share a "general intellect." The Multitude obstructs and dismantles the mechanisms of political representation. It expresses itself as an ensemble of "acting minorities," none of which, however, aspires to transform itself into a majority. It develops a power that refuses to become government. Now, it is the case that each of the "many" turns out to be inseparable from the "presence of others," inconceivable outside of the linguistic cooperation or the "acting-in-concert" that this presence implies. Cooperation, however, unlike the individual labor time or the individual right of citizenry, is not a "substance" that is extrapolatable and commutable. It can, of course, be subjected, but it cannot be represented or, for that matter, delegated. The Multitude, which has an exclusive mode of being in its "acting-in-concert," is infiltrated by all kinds of Kapos and Quislings, but it does not accredit stand-ins or nominees.
The States of the developed West are today characterized by a political nonrepresentability of the post-Fordist workforce. In fact, they gain strength from it, drawing from it a paradoxical legitimation for their authoritarian restructuring. The tangible and irreversible crisis of representation offers an opportunity for them to eliminate any remaining semblance of "public sphere"; to extend enormously, as observed above, the prerogatives of Adminstration at the expense of the politico-parliamentary process; and thus to make an everyday reality of the state of emergency. Institutional reforms are set in motion to prepare the requisite rules and procedures for governing a Multitude upon whom it is no longer possible to superimpose the tranquilizing physiognomy of the "People." As interpreted by the post-Keynesian State, the structural weakening of representative democracy comes to be seen as a tendency toward a restriction of democracy tout court. It goes without saying, however, that an opposition to this course of events, if conducted in the name of values of representation, is pathetic and pointless--as useful as preaching chastity to sparrows. Democracy today has to be framed in terms of the construction and experimentation of forms of nonrep-resentative and extraparliamentary democracy. All the rest is vacant chitchat.
The democracy of the Multitude takes seriously the diagnosis that Carl Schmitt proposed, somewhat bitterly, in the last years of his life: "The era of the State is now coming to an end... .The State as a model of political unity, the State as title-holder of the most extraordinary of all monopolies, in other words, the monopoly of political decision-making, is about to be dethroned."15 And the democracy of the Multitude would make one important addition: the monopoly of decision making can only really be taken away from the State if it ceases once and for all to be a monopoly. The public sphere of Intellect, or the Republic of the "many," is a centrifugal force: in other words, it excludes not only the continued existence, but also the reconstitution in any form of a unitary "political body." The republican conspiracy, to give lasting duration to the antimonopoly impulse, is embodied in those democratic bodies that, being nonrepresentative, prevent, precisely, any reproposi-tion of "political unity." Hobbes had a well-known contempt for "irregular politicall sys-temes," precisely because they served to adumbrate the Multitude within the heart of the People: "Irregular Systemes, in their nature, but Leagues, or sometimes meer concourse of people, without union to any particular designe, [not] by obligation of one to another, but proceeding onely from a similitude of wills and inclinations."16 Well, the Republic of the "many" consists precisely of institutions of this kind: leagues, councils, and Soviets. Except that, contrary to Hobbes's malevolent judgment, here we are not dealing with ephemeral appearances whose insurgence leaves undisturbed the rights of sovereignty. The leagues, the councils, and the Soviets--in short, the organs of nonrepresentative democracy--give, rather, political expression to the "acting-in-concert" that, having as its network general intellect, already always enjoys a publicness that is completely different from what is concentrated in the person of the sovereign. The public sphere delineated by "concourse" in which "obligation of one to another" does not apply, determines the "solitude" of the king, in other words, reduces the structure of the State to a very private peripheral band, which is overbearing but at the same time marginal.
The Soviets of the Multitude interfere conflictually with the State's administrative apparatuses, with a view to eating away at its prerogatives and absorbing its functions. They translate into republican praxis, in other words, into a care for common affairs, those same basic resources--knowledge, communication, a relationship with the "presence of others"--that are the order of the day in post-Fordist production. They emancipate virtiiosic cooperation from its present connection with waged labor, showing with positive actions how the one goes beyond the other.
To representation and delegation, the Soviets counterpose an operative style that is far more complex, centered on Example and political repro-ducibility. What is exemplary is a practical initiative that, exhibiting in a particular instance the possible alliance between general intellect and Republic, has the author-itativeness of the prototype, but not the normativity of command. Whether it is a question of the distribution of wealth or the organization of schools, the functioning of the media or the workings of the inner city, the Soviets elaborate actions that are paradigmatic and capable of blossoming into new combinations of knowledge, ethical propensities, technologies, and desires. The Example is not the empirical application of a universal concept, but it has the singularity and the qualitative completeness that, normally, when we speak of the "life of the mind," we attribute to an idea. It is, in short, a "species" that consists of one sole individual. For this reason, the Example may be politically reproduced, but never transposed into an omnivorous "general program."
The Right to Resistance
The atrophy of political Action has had as its corollary the conviction that there is no longer an "enemy," but only incoherent interlocutors, caught up in a web of equivocation, and not yet arrived at clarification. The abandonment of the notion of "enmity," which is judged as being too crude and anyway unseemly, betrays a considerable optimism: people think of themselves, in other words, as "swimming with the current" (this is the reproof that Walter Benjamin directed against German Social Democracy in the 1930s).17 And the benign "current" may take a variety of different names: progress, the development of productive forces, the choice of a form of life that shuns inauthenticity, general intellect. Naturally, we have to bear in mind the possibility of failing in this "swimming," in other words, not being able to define in clear and distinct terms the precise contents of a politics adequate to our times. However, this caution does not annul but corroborates the fundamental conviction: as long as one learns to "swim," and thus as long as one thinks well about possible liberty, the "current" will drive one irresistibly forward. However, no notice is taken of the interdiction that institutions, interests, and material forces may oppose the good swimmer. What is ignored is the catastrophe that is often visited precisely and only on the person who has seen things correctly. But there is worse: when one fails to define the specific nature of the enemy, and the places in which its power is rooted and where the chains that it imposes are tightest, one is not really even in a position to indicate the kinds of positive instances for which one might fight, the alternative ways of being that are worth hoping for. The theory of the Exodus restores all the fullness of the concept of "enmity," while at the same time highlighting the particular traits that it assumes once "the epoch of the State comes to an end." The question is, how is the friend-enemy relationship expressed for the post-Fordist Multitude, which, while on the one hand tending to dismantle the supreme power, on the other is not at all inclined to become State in its turn? In the first place, we should recognize a change in the geometry of hostility. The "enemy" no longer appears as a parallel reflection or mirror image, matching point by point the trenches and fortifications that are occupied by the "friends"; rather, it appears as a segment that intersects several times with a sinusoidal line of flight-- and this is principally for the reason that the "friends" are evacuating predictable positions, giving rise to a sequence of constructive defections. In military terms, the contemporary "enemy" resembles the pharaoh's army: it presses hard on the heels of the fleeing population, massacring those who are bringing up the rear, but never succeeding in getting ahead of it and confronting it. Now, the very fact that hostility becomes asymmetrical makes it necessary to give a certain autonomy to the notion of "friendship," retrieving it from the subaltern and parasitic status that Carl Schmitt assigns it. The characteristic of the "friend" is not merely that of sharing the same "enemy"; it is defined by the relations of solidarity that are established in the course of flight--by the necessity of working together to invent opportunities that up until that point have not been computed, and by the fact of their common participation in the Republic. "Friendship" always extends more broadly than the "front" along which the pharaoh unleashes his incursions. This overflowingness, however, does not at all imply an indifference to what happens on the line of fire. On the contrary, the asymmetry makes it possible to take the "enemy" from the rear, confusing and blinding it as we shake ourselves free.
Second, one has to be careful in defining today the degree or gradation of hostility. By way of comparison, it is useful to recall Schmitt's proverbial distinction between relative enmity and absolute enmity.181 The wars among the European States in the eighteenth century were circumscribed and regulated by criteria of conflict in which each contender recognized the other as a legitimate title-holder of sovereignty and thus as a subject of equal prerogatives. These were happy times, Schmitt assures us, but they are irrevocably lost in history. In our own century, proletarian revolutions have removed the brakes and impediments from hostility, elevating civil war to an implicit model of every conflict. When what is at stake is State power--in other words, sovereignty--enmity becomes absolute. But can we still stand by the Mercalli scale elaborated by Schmitt? I have my doubts, given that it leaves out of account the truly decisive subterranean shift: a kind of hostility that does not aspire to shift the monopoly of political decision making into new hands, but that demands its very elimination.
The model of "absolute" enmity is thus seen to be deficient-- not so much because it is extremist or bloody, but, paradoxically, because it is not radical enough. The republican Multitude actually aims to destroy what is the much-desired prize of the victor in this model. Civil war sits best only with ethnic blood feuds, in which the issue is still who will be the sovereign, whereas it is quite inappropriate for conflicts that undermine the economic-juridical ordering of the capitalist State and challenge the very fact of sovereignty. The various different "acting minorities" multiply the non-State centers of political decision making, without, however, posing the formation of a new general will (in fact, removing the possible basis of this). This then entails a perpetuation of an intermediary state between peace and war. On the one hand, the battle for "the most extraordinary of all monopolies" is premised on either total victory or total defeat; on the other, the more radical scenario (which is antimonopolistic) alternates between negotiation and total rejection, between an intransigence that excludes all mediation and the compromises necessary for carving out free zones and neutral environments. It is neither "relative" in the sense of the ius publicum Europaeum that at one time moderated the contests between sovereign States, nor is it "absolute" in the manner of civil wars; if anything, the enmity of the Multitude may be defined as unlimitedly reactive. The new geometry and the new gradation of hostility, far from counseling against the use of arms, demands a precise and punctilious redefinition of the role to be fulfilled by violence in political Action. Because the Exodus is a committed withdrawal, the recourse to force is no longer gauged in terms of the conquest of State power in the land of the pharaohs, but in relation to the safeguarding of the forms of life and communitarian relations experienced en route. What deserve to be defended at all costs are the works of "friendship." Violence is not geared to visions of some hypothetical tomorrow, but functions to ensure respect and a continued existence for things that were mapped out yesterday. It does not innovate, but acts to prolong things that are already there: the autonomous expressions of the "acting-in-concert" that arise out of general intellect, organisms of nonrepresentative democracy, forms of mutual protection and assistance (welfare, in short) that have emerged outside of and against the realm of State Administration. In other words, what we have here is a violence that is conservational.
We might choose to label the extreme conflicts of the post-Fordist metropolis with a premodern political category: the ius resistentiae--the Right to Resistance. In medieval jurisprudence, this did not refer to the obvious ability to defend oneself when attacked. Nor did it refer to a general uprising against constituted power: there is a clear distinction between this and the concepts of sedi-tio and rebellio. Rather, the Right of Resistance has a very subtle and specific meaning. It authorizes the use of violence each time that an artisanal corporation, or the community as a whole, or even individual citizens, see certain of their positive prerogatives altered by the central power, prerogatives that have been acquired de facto or that have developed by tradition. The salient point is therefore that it involves the preservation of a transformation that has already happened, a sanctioning of an already existing and commonplace way of being. Given that it is a close relation of radical Disobedience and of the virtue of Intemperance, the ius resistentiae has the feel of a very up-to-date concept in terms of "legality" and "illegality." The founding of the Republic eschews the prospect of civil war, but postulates an unlimited Right of Resistance.
Waiting for the Unexpected
Work, Action, Intellect: following the line of a tradition that goes back to Aristotle and that was still "common sense" for the generation that arrived in politics in the 1960s, Hannah Arendt sought to separate these three spheres of human experience and show their mutual incommensurability. Albeit adjacent and sometimes overlapping, the three different realms are essentially unrelated. In fact, they exclude themselves by turns: while one is making politics, one is not producing, nor is one involved in intellectual contemplation; when one works, one is not acting politically and exposing oneself to the presence of others, nor is one participating in the "life of the mind"; and anyone who is dedicated to pure reflection withdraws temporarily from the work of appearances, and thus neither acts nor produces. "To each his own" seems to be the message of Arendt's The Human Condition, and every man for himself. Although she argues passionately for the specific value of political Action, fighting against its entrapment in mass society, Arendt maintains that the other two fundamental spheres, Work and Intellect, remain unchanged in their qualitative structures. Certainly, Work has been extended enormously, and certainly, Thought seems feeble and paralyzed; however, the former is still nonetheless an organic exchange with nature, a social metabolism, a production of new objects, and the latter is still a solitary activity, by its nature extraneous to the cares of common affairs.
As must be obvious by now, however, what I am arguing here is radically opposed to the conceptual schema proposed by Arendt and the tradition by which it is inspired. Allow me to recapitulate briefly. The decline of political Action arises from the qualitative changes that have taken place both in the sphere of Work and in the sphere of Intellect, given that a strict intimacy has been established between them. Conjoined to Work, Intellect (as an aptitude or "faculty," not as a repertory of special understandings) becomes public, appearing, worldly. In other words, what comes to the fore is its nature as a shared resource and a common good. By the same token, when the potentiality of general intellect comes to be the principal pillar of social production, so Work assumes the aspect of an activity without a finished work, becoming similar in every respect to those virtiiosic performances that are based on a relationship with a "presence of others." But is not virtuosity the characteristic trait of political action? One has to conclude, therefore, that post-Fordist production has absorbed within itself the typical modalities of Action and, precisely by so doing, has decreed its eclipse. Naturally, this metamorphosis has nothing liberatory about it: within the realm of'waged labor, the virtuosic relationship with the "presence of others" translates into personal dependence; the "activity-without-finished-work," which nonetheless is strongly reminiscent from close up of political praxis, is reduced to an extremely modern servitude.
Earlier in this essay, then, I proposed that political Action finds its redemption at the point where it creates a coalition with public Intellect (in other words, at the point where this Intellect is unchained from waged labor and, rather, builds its critique with the tact of a corrosive acid). Action consists, in the final analysis, in the articulation of general intellect as a non-State public sphere, as the realm of common affairs, as Republic. The Exodus, in the course of which the new alliance between Intellect and Action is forged, has a number of fixed stars in its own heaven: radical Disobedience, Intemperance, Multitude, Soviet, Example, Right of Resistance. These categories allude to a political theory of the future, a theory perhaps capable of racing up to the political crises of the late twentieth century and outlining a solution that is radically anti-Hobbesian.
Political Action, in Arendt's opinion, is a new beginning that interrupts and contradicts automatic processes that have become consolidated into fact. Action has, thus, something of the miracle, given that it shares the miracle's quality of being surprising and unexpected.19 Now, in conclusion, it might be worth asking whether, even though the theory of Exodus is for the most part irreconcilable with Arendt, there might be some usefulness in her notion of Miracle.
Here, of course, we are dealing with a recurrent theme in great political thinking, particularly in reactionary thought. For Hobbes, it is the role of the sovereign to decide what events merit the rank of miracles, or transcend ordinary law. Conversely, miracles cease as soon as the sovereign forbids them.20 Schmitt takes a similar position, inasmuch as he identifies the core of power as being the ability to proclaim states of exception and suspend constitutional order: "The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology."21 On the other hand, Spinoza's democratic radicalism confutes the theological-political value of the miraculous exception. There is, however, an ambivalent aspect in his argumentation. In fact, according to Spinoza, a miracle, unlike the universal laws of nature that are identified with God, expresses only a "limited power"; in other words, it is something specifically human. Instead of consolidating faith, it makes us "doubt God and everything," thus creating a predisposition to atheism.22 But are not these very elements--a solely human power, a radical doubt regarding constituted power, and political atheism--some of the characteristics that define the anti-State Action of the Multitude? In general, the fact that in both Hobbes and Schmitt the miracle is the preserve of the sovereign in no sense runs counter to the connection between Action and Miracle; rather, in a sense, it confirms it. For these authors, it is only the sovereign who acts politically. The point is therefore not to deny the importance of the state of exception in the name of a critique of sovereignty, but rather to understand what form it might assume once political Action passes into the hands of the Many. Insurrections, desertions, invention of new organisms of democracy, applications of the principle of the tertium datur: herein lie the Miracles of the Multitude, and these miracles do not cease when the sovereign forbids them.
Unlike what we have in Arendt, however, the miraculous exception is not an ineffable "event," with no roots, and entirely imponderable. Because it is contained within the magnetic field defined by the mutually changing interrelations of Action, Work, and Intellect, the Miracle is rather something that is awaited but unexpected. As happens in every oxymoron, the two terms are in mutual tension, but inseparable. If what was in question was only the salvation offered by an "unexpected," or only a long-term "waiting," then we could be dealing, respectively, with the most insignificant notion of causality or the most banal calculation of the relationship between means and ends. Rather, it is an exception that is especially surprising to the one who was awaiting it. It is an anomaly so potent that it completely disorients our conceptual compass, which, however, had precisely signaled the place of its insurgence. We have here a discrepancy between cause and effect, in which one can always grasp the cause, but the innovative effect is never lessened. Finally, it is precisely the explicit reference to an unexpected waiting, or the exhibition of a necessary incompleteness, that constitutes the point of honor of every political theory that disdains the benevolence of the sovereign.
Translated by Ed Emory
1. The following is the complete passage: "The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of, production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process." Karl Marx, . Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans- Martin Nicolaus (New York: Random House, 1973), 706.
2. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University' of Chicago Press, 195S), in particular "The Traditional Substitution of Making for Acting," 220-30.
3. Karl Marx, "Results of the Immediate Process of Production," in Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage, 1977), 1048.
4. Ibid., 1044-45.
5. Aristotle, Nicowachean Ethics, book 6 (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1985), 1139b.
6. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought (New York; Viking, 1961), 154.
7. Marx, Grundrisse, 705- 8. Ibid.
9. Thomas Hobbes, De Cive (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), chap. 14. sec. 21, 181.
10. Albert 0. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty:Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge; Harvard University Press, 1970).
11. Marx discusses the North American "frontier" and its economic and political importance in the final chapter of the first volume of Capital, titled "The Modern Theory of Colonization." Marx writes: "There, the absolute numbers of the population increase much more quickly than in the mother country, because many workers enter the colonial world as ready-made adults, and still the labour-market is always understocked. The law of the supply and demand of labour collapses completely. On the one hand, the old world constantly throws in capital, thirsting after exploitation and 'abstinence'; on the other, the regular reproduction of the wage-labourer as a wage-labourer comes up against the most mischievous obstacles, which are in part insuperable. And what becomes of the production of redundant wage-labourers, redundant, that is, in proportion to the accumulation of capital? Today's wage-labourer is tomorrow's independent peasant or artisan, working for himself. He vanishes from the labour-market--but not into the workhouse. This constant transformation of wage-labourers into independent producers who work for themselves instead of for capital, and enrich themselves instead of the capitalist gentlemen, reacts in its Turn very adversely on the conditions of the labour-market. Not only does the degree of exploitation of the wage-labourer remain indecently low. The wage-labourer also loses, along with the relation of dependence, the feeling of dependence on the abstemious capitalist." Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Pbwkes (New York: Vintage, 1977), 935-36.
12. Aristotle, 'Nicomachean Ethics, book 7, 1147a25-h20.
13. Hobbes, De Cive, 151.
14. Ibid., 152.
15. Carl Schmitt, Der Begriffdes Politischen: Text von 1932 wit eimen Vorvo'lt und drei Corollarien (Berlin: Dunckerand IIumblot, 1963), 10.
16. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), chap. 22, 163.
17. See Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1968), in particular thesis XI, 258-59.
18. See Schmitt, Dei- Begnffdes Politischen, 102-11.
19. See Arendt, Between Past and Future, 168-70.
20. See Hobbes, Leviathan, chap. 37.
21. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985), 36.
22. Baruch Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, in The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, vol. 1, trans. R. Elwe-s (New York: Dover, 1951), 81-97.

Friday, August 09, 2013


“Oppression” by Michael David Russell,
C-90473, Pelican Bay SHU D7-217, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City CA 95532

There is no spring in prison and no one is talking about a California prison spring.  There is no freedom in prison.  There aren't a lot of angels in prison either.  No one, including prisoners, says otherwise.  

There are, however, human beings in prison and human beings have the right to be treated as such.  I don't know what everyone in California's prisons are guilty of or not guilty of, and neither do you.  I am sure thrown into the bunch are some real bad actors.  I've been in prison.  I know that to be a fact.  You know what else I know.  Most people in prison are just pretty much like the rest of us except they made some mistake, got caught up in some misfortune, got screwed by someone, got taken advantage of by a system that doesn't care.  

No State or state has the right to torture, yet torture they do.  They may call it something else.  They almost always do.  Doesn't matter, you and I know torture when we see it.

In California, today, and for more than a month a group of human beings, prisoners, have put aside their many differences, their many hostilities, given up the little comfort they have to carry on a struggle not just for themselves but for prisoners everywhere, and not just for prisoners but for you and I, and not just for you and I, but in some ways for humanity itself.

We owe them our support.

The following post for Scission Prison Friday comes from the San Francisco Bay View.

Mediators talk with prisoners as hunger strike reaches one month mark, situation remains critical, negotiations crucial

August 8, 2013

by Isaac Ontiveros, Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition

Oakland, Aug. 8, 2013 – Today marks one month for prisoners on hunger strike throughout the California prison system. Earlier today, the mediation team working on behalf of the strikers was able to speak to the prisoners at Pelican Bay who initially called for the strike. Just moments ago members of the mediation team issued the following statement:

“All of the members of our mediation team were able to speak with hunger strike representatives at Pelican Bay for two-and-a-half hours. All four representatives are totally united and resolute. They were clear that this peaceful protest is not about them – it is about making real, fundamental changes to an incredibly unjust system.

“They haven’t eaten for 32 days but they are cogent, focused and committed.

“We were able to work together to develop new ideas about how to move forward, which we’ll be acting on over the next few days. The mediation team will be staying in contact with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and issuing statements daily.”

Reports from prisoners at Pelican Bay indicate escalated mistreatment from guards in the Administrative Segregation and Security Housing Units. Prisoners report being verbally abused by guards and overhearing them discussing orders “to treat some prisoners really nicely and others really badly.”

Today marks one month for prisoners on hunger strike throughout the California prison system.

Despite the abuse, prisoners remain steadfast in continuing their protest. “They are obviously feeling the effects of not having eaten in over a month, but they remain strong and in high spirits” said Anne Weills, a lawyer representing strikers at Pelican Bay. “They are fighting for themselves, their fellow prisoners and those who will come after them. They are incredibly inspired by all the support they’ve received and are steadfast in their commitments to improving conditions.”

“They haven’t eaten for 32 days but they are cogent, focused and committed.”

On the outside, prisoners’ loved ones, activists and advocates continue their fight to compel the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and Gov. Jerry Brown to urgently address the human rights violations happening in the prison system by calling for immediate good-faith negotiations with strikers.

“These men are risking their lives to insist on humane conditions and an end to indefinite sentences of solitary confinement in California’s prison system,” said mediator Barbara Becnel.

“Recent reports from these prisoners demonstrate that their brave efforts have been made all the more difficult by prison guards who are treating them very harshly. Meanwhile, the hunger strikers have entered a very dangerous phase of their protest: their health could be permanently damaged and they could even die.”

“These men are risking their lives to insist on humane conditions and an end to indefinite sentences of solitary confinement in California’s prison system,” said mediator Barbara Becnel.

As for Gov. Brown and CDCR Secretary Beard: “How many prisoners have to be harmed by guards and the conditions which violate international human rights standards before state authorities are willing to seriously consider their demands for real change? How many prisoners have to die?”

Becnel’s full statement follows:

Prisoner hunger strike Day 32: Countdown for humane conditions

by Barbara Becnel, Mediation Team member

Aug. 8, 2013 – Today is the one-month anniversary of a hunger strike initiated by prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison that quickly spread to other correctional facilities across the state of California. To be precise, it is Day 32 of a month-long period of no solid foods for what are now hundreds of prisoners.

These are men risking their lives to insist on humane conditions and certain terms for those prisoners who have otherwise been banished toindefinite sentences of solitary confinement in California’s prison system. Many of these men have been isolated for decades with no windows, no contact visits, no outside sunlight and no real exercise.

Recent reports from these prisoners demonstrate that their brave efforts have been made all the more difficult by prison guards who are treating them very harshly.

Guards are knocking them into walls, handcuffing them incorrectly to cause suffering and bending their arms to provoke extreme pain. Guards are spitting out racial epithets or deliberately placing an African American prisoner, for example, in a cell with racist graffiti.

Guards are also being strategically divisive by tactically treating some prisoners nicely and others in the most demeaning ways, hoping – as the guards openly discussed in front of some prisoners – to create division so the prisoners will begin to fight each other. The guards’ goal: to undermine the hunger strike.

According to these same talkative guards, this unprofessional behavior is what they were instructed to do to help bring the hunger strike to an end.

Ironically, those prisoners who have gotten off the hunger strike are also being treated badly. Guards are calling them “cowards” and “bitches” and other demeaning labels.

How many prisoners have to be harmed by guards and by the prisoners’ struggle for justice before state authorities are willing to consider, seriously, their demands for real change? How many prisoners have to die?

Meanwhile, the hunger strikers have entered a very dangerous phase of their protest: their health could be permanently damaged by their refusal to eat solid foods; they could even die.

The questions for California Gov. Jerry Brown and Secretary Jeffrey Beard of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are these: How many prisoners have to be harmed by guards and by the prisoners’ struggle for justice before state authorities are willing to consider, seriously, their demands for real change? How many prisoners have to die?

Hunger Strike Mediation Team

  • Ron Ahnen, California Prison Focus and St. Mary’s College of California
  • Barbara Becnel,
  • Dolores Canales, California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement
  • Irene Huerta, California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement
  • Laura Magnani, American Friends Service Committee
  • Marilyn McMahon, California Prison Focus
  • Carol Strickman, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children
  • Azadeh Zohrabi, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children

To learn more and get involved, go to Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013


So what is this thing we call freedom anyway.  I can tell you what it is not.  It isn't getting to vote for someone else to represent you and a score of other people.  It isn't getting to pick between which TV news station to watch.  It isn't getting to decide on one of a hundred brands of toothpaste, and it sure isn't getting to sleep under a bridge.  It isn't even getting to say what you think, and again, it sure isn't getting to decide to quit your job.  There is a little bit of choice in all of those things, but freedom is much more.  Is freedom really just another name for nothing else to lose?  

No, it is more that that.  Freedom is not a negative.

Sometimes freedom is something that doesn't even seem like freedom or is something that is really in a way beyond all the simplified definitions of what freedom is all about.  

One thing I do know, freedom is something we have to make ourselves and it is always a struggle.

The post below explores the concept of freedom from a perspective that I found interesting and you may find surprising.

Sometimes freedom pops up in strange places.

DISCLAIMER:  rightly or wrongly, I am a fan of Sons of Anarchy (mentioned in the piece below) get over it.  .

The following is from We Are Respectable Negroes.

Real Freedom is Black Folks in Surprising Places: Introducing the Black Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs the "Chosen Few" and the "East Bay Dragons"

In a democratic society, freedom does not just involve the ability to vote. Freedom is also those small acts and "obvious" liberties that so many people take for granted

Freedom is the ability to freely associate and communicate with those of your choosing. Freedom is also the ability to be free from harassment. Freedom is the the opportunity to live and be happy, where your rights and liberties as a full citizen are respected and honored without question.

Following the Trayvon Martin case, the public dialogue that transpired in its aftermath, and also in talking to my students, most of whom are white, it has become readily apparent to me that our recurring and moribund "national conversation on race"--especially in regards to racial profiling, the extra-judicial murder of people of color, and the criminal justice system--is at its root one about basic conceptions of freedom.

While much has been written about the great divides in public opinion regarding how White America and Black America perceive the fairness of the criminal justice system and the legitimacy of George Zimmerman's acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin, much less has been written about how public opinion in these matters is a function of both individual life experiences and historical memory.

An example here is very useful. A few months ago, I was talking to some of my white students about the George Zimmerman trial. One of them very honestly stated that if Trayvon Martin had just been polite and submissive to George Zimmerman none of the events that evening would have transpired.

Of course, I pointed out that George Zimmerman is not a police officer. I then, much to this student's surprise, highlighted how Trayvon Martin had no obligation to submit, answer questions from, respond to, or even be polite to a random stranger who was interrogating him.

Moreover, I told this same student, that if I were in Trayvon's position, exercising my Constitutional right to walk down the street, I would have used some very direct language regarding Zimmerman, his mother, and what he should with her.

I will leave the details to your imagination.

As we talked some more it occurred to me that this young white man, a nice guy, one who is a product of American society and all of its unstated but taken for granted rules about white authority over people of color, never imagined that a black man would stand up for himself.

When I asked him "what would you do if a stranger was harassing you and demanding to know the hows and whys of your choice to walk down the street?" his answer was pretty close to my own.

Why then did his answer change when it applied to Trayvon Martin?

I was taught that as a black man I must not sacrifice my dignity or self-respect to random white people or those who are allied with white racism in conducting my life. In dealing with the police, or those others with State authority to kill me, there are other strategies to be deployed. But I will not, under most or any other imaginable circumstance, surrender to a random person wondering about my legitimacy to be in a given public space.

If you are not taught those lessons in the context of what it means to be black in America, I am unsure if it is possible to communicate the power and salience of that prime directive.

For centuries, Black Americans have been subjected to rules limiting our freedom of movement. Slavery and Jim and Jane Crow were prefaced on that fact. Slave passes limited the freedom of black people in their own communities. The police and others, using debt peonage and terrorist groups such as the KKK, limited the mobility of African-Americans in an updated version of the plantation system during Jim Crow. Sundown towns, red lining, restrictive housing covenants, and other manipulations of the housing market also limited the mobility of African-Americans and our freedom.

Consequently, there are many reasons for African-Americans' historic embrace of automobiles and motorcycles. Ultimately, the car and other means of travel were ways for black people to escape Jim and Jane Crow by finding the relative freedom of the road (even when we still had to come up with our own self-help and guidebooks for navigating it).

Freedom is also the liberty to be who you want to be, to fulfill your own dreams, and to defy the unfair expectations forced upon you by the colorline.

There are many millions of ways to be black in America; the politics of racial authenticity as internally policed and contoured by the realities of white supremacy and white racism, have also shaped how so many black and brown folks think about the boundaries and limitations of their own human possibilities.

There are so many untold stories about black people who were in places "they did not belong", were not welcome, and who showed up unexpectedly much to the surprise of those whites folks who chose to greet and welcome them (or not).

The Black Freedom Struggle is not just one centered on public marches by the thousands, or great men and great women who we honor for one month out of the year. Like other groups who have been marginalized in any society, there are and were day to day struggles, by real people, who just wanted to be free in the most basic sense of the word, who were also an integral part of the broader civil rights project.

I am so fascinated by those black and brown folks that show up in inconvenient places because I count "ghetto nerds" like myself among that group. In learning that history, I am discovering so much about the history of Black America, the Black Diaspora, and their relationship to quotidian struggles for freedom and human dignity.

Popular culture pushed me in this direction as it often does. After watching the TV show Sons of Anarchy, I said to myself that there must be, and have been, black and brown folks who were involved in the outlaw motorcycle tradition too. After some basic research, I then learned about groups such as the Chosen Fewand the East Bay Dragons:

I was also pleasantly surprised that the iconic movie Easy Riderfeatured motorcycles designed by an African-American brother named Ben Hardy:

The freedom of the road and travel that compels the devotees to motorcycle culture is universal across divides of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. For African-Americans, a people who were denied such freedoms by law, it makes sense that we would find motorcycle and car culture especially compelling.

I love learning new things. If you have any resources, stories, or other information to share about black motorcycle culture, and that of other people of color (and their white brothers and sisters) who are part of it do share.

The brothers in the Chosen Few, the East Bay Dragons, and other pioneers in black and multiracial outlaw motorcycle culture constitute an American story that deserves and needs to be told to and shared among a larger public.