Waves and Foam

There is an interesting article on Irish Left Review by Cathal Larkin re-assessing the dynamics of Occupy Cork from a Freirean perspective. Mine is the first comment below the line.

The article is a genuine attempt at thinking beyond the self-understanding of the Left as the active subject, and in that sense I liked it a lot, but it just didn’t go far enough for my liking; I suppose I’m just a bit more inclined toward radical uncertainty as far as Occupy is/was concerned.

The more I think about it in retrospect, the more the issue of the reproduction of the camps as physical spaces seems to lie the heart of things. There were people who basically dedicated their time to operating a security detail, or sourcing food, or other essential activities. Not all of them might have been in a position to articulate political ideas in line with Left expectations. Does that mean, then, that they ought to be identified as people who need to undergo a process of conscientization, as an activist sees fit? They were also ‘consciously and collectively shaping their environment and social relations’. I think it’s dangerous to make assumptions to know more about what they are doing than they themselves do.

There was also the matter of people who were homeless or had problems with mental illness – I think it’s also quite a big deal to create a space where such people can sit down and talk to other people and have a cup of tea or whatever. The temptation is to look at the histories of Occupy sites and dismiss anything that didn’t lead to the development of a political strategy or identifiable pedagogical outcomes as secondary or superfluous or even frivolous. The further it recedes in time, though, the more that kind of stuff, the stuff that gets ignored in much of the political analysis, grows in importance in my mind as instances of what Holloway calls ‘concrete doing’. The problem of conceptualising Occupy in terms of a reality that ought to have been set straight, grounded in proper political practice, is that it just casts all that stuff to one side.

What follows is a translation of a piece by Amador Fernández Savater, originally published in eldiario.es on the 10th September, addressing the question of strategy for movements such as Occupy/15-M through the work of sinologist François Jullien and Antonio Gramsci. I think it’s quite germane to the discussion that the ILR piece has opened up, particularly bearing in mind the history of the Occupy sites in Ireland and the tensions that emerged between experienced activists and people for whom political activity was something newer and more unusual. I would also recommend following the link through to Fernández Savater’s piece on ‘The Republic of the 99%’, in which you will find a novel discussion of the film Michael Collins (!) as a way of understanding what a radical strategic shift might amount to.   

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Waves and foam. Other ways of thinking strategically.

Effectiveness and 15-M

The debate over effectiveness is not something new in the 15-M. It has been there from the start. What do we want, how do we get it. These are questions that arose time and again in the assemblies on the squares. Positions quickly became polarised: should we strive to arrive at a minimum consensus to guide action, or is the greatest achievement of the movement the movement itself, the process of learning about other ways of being together? Are we going slow because we’re going far, or are we going under because we don’t know where we’re going? We couldn’t or didn’t want to invent a way that joined together both positions: an unprecedented answer to the classic debate over processes and objectives.

The debate has intensified after the first anniversary of 15-M and with regard to the 25-S. It is shot through with a deep anguish: the accelerated process of economic catastrophe threatens to carry all before it in record time. How can that runaway suicide train be stopped? You hear people say: the first 15-M –a chaotic and emotional whirlwind, which moved forward to the beat of improvisation, immediacy and unlimited human effort- now must give way to a “more effective” form. Maybe so. The 15-M is a movement that evolves and transforms itself: what worked in a given moment may not be the most suitable in another, fidelity does not mean repetition but constant re-creation. The odd thing about 15-M is that it is a living and editable idea: it can be handled, altered, transformed.

Problems of traditional strategic thought

But what does ‘more effective’ mean? The problem of effectiveness is linked to that of strategy: it is said that what the movement needs to be more effective is to ‘think strategically’. Strategy is thinking about the relation between means and ends, what is intended and how it is achieved. It entails setting a direction (purpose) and having an overall vision (totalising). And it entails setting clear objectives from analysis of the conjuncture, accurately singling out the enemy, establishing an operational continuity, gathering forces, properly measuring risks, etc.

I have two doubts. The first: can one think strategically about a reality so out of whack as the one in which we are living, with its intertwining of leaps, sudden accelerations, conflicts and negotiations amid a swamp of heterogeneous actors? How does one think strategically in contexts of high uncertainty, complexity and dispersion, when strategic thought is always thought for the long term, building over time, and continuity?

The second: how can one think strategically from an anomalous movement such as 15-M. Those who empathise with it and its detractors coincide: the 15-M is truly a strange thing. An unidentified flying object. It is not like those social movements we have long known about, defined by an organisational structure and a clear identity, with clear boundaries and filters for entry. Hence we try and grasp it with different images and say it is “another mental state” or “a new social climate”. But can one think strategically about a change in climate, which is atmospheric, diffuse, dislocated, intermittent, and complex?

There are those who reply: “there is no possible strategy, we can only improvise”. Perhaps. But what interests me now is rather to look into other possible images of strategy. Starting to think about politics in a different way was undoubtedly a victory of the 15-M. But it is a precarious victory: in progress, by no means irreversible, and one which repeatedly tries to update itself. Because ‘the old politics’ is not this or that specific group of people, but a sluggishness that cuts across us all: that of placing a knowledge [un saber] where there ought to be a work of thought or creation. Perhaps it is a little defective, but traditional strategic thought is all we have. Its mental schemes operate in our heads and order our perception of what is possible and desirable. Can we invent other images of effectiveness and strategy that are more suitable for the “new 15-M brain”? I find the thought of François Jullien highly inspiring in this regard.

The Chinese idea of effectiveness

[translation note: eficacia, the word used here, can mean either efficacy or effectiveness in Spanish. If you are not clear on the difference between the two, that makes two of us. I have not read the book about to be quoted but I understand that Jullien makes a distinction between the two terms. I have used the terms here interchangeably, which may turn out to be a barbarous thing to do, but I think the meaning of this text holds either way]

François Jullien is a French sinologist and philosopher who has written various books on the differences between the Chinese and western ways of thinking. His intention is to move out of western thought so as to better interrogate it radically, that is, to go to the root: its premises, its pillars, which at times go unthought. His way of moving out is to go around China. China is the outside that provides an unexpected way of looking at the inside of Western thought. Jullien establishes this contrast by starting from very specific points: art, the body, time, and thought itself. The book I am going to comment on (I would nearly say paraphrase, which is why I do not even quote) is called A Treatise on Efficacy, and is a reflection on the different approaches to the military art of war: Sun Tzi or Sun Bin for example in China, Von Clausewitz for example in the West.

What is the difference? The West divides the world in two: what is and what ought to be. It is the founding platonic act of an entire metaphysics or vision of the world. The Western idea of effectiveness is derived from here: it concerns projecting onto reality what must be (in the form of Plan or Model) and attempting to materialise it (to bring it into practice, to ground it). Between is and ought, human will tries to bridge the gap and “straighten out reality” (to set it straight, that is, according to Right, Law, what ought to be). Understanding performs abstractions and models, will applies and executes. In the case of the military art of war, the General Staff proposes the Plan and the armies break resistances that reality opposes. The field of battle where one fights to annihilate the enemy completely is the decisive moment in which all is at stake: the “essence” of war.

According to Jullien, the Chinese think strategy in a completely different way. They do not divide the world between what is and what ought to be. That is: they do not start off from a Model or a Plan, but from the very course of the real. The real is not formless or chaotic material that awaits our organisation: it is already organised. It has propensities, inclines and slopes that can be detected and put to use. This is what Jullien calls “facilitating factors” or “potentials of the situation”. The work of the good strategist is not to model and plan first of all in order to apply afterward, but rather to listen, accompany and develop the potentials of a situation. Not to act, but to be acted upon. Not to force: to endorse. Not to pursue a goal directly, but to exploit a propensity. Because the effects are contained within it. It is like surfing a wave: it is not a matter of taming it, but of going together towards the same place. To allow oneself be carried along. The world is only resistance and obstacle when viewed through the optic of control.

Two key figures of Western strategic thought are called into grave questioning here.

  • the subject-vanguard. The initiative does not come from any subject, but from the situation: the groundswell. In fact vanguards (the General Staff of politics) ruin facilitating factors when they try to force them: they saturate them, they do not allow the effects to pass, they are too easily noticed, making themselves easily identifiable to the enemy. What Chinese strategy requires are rather “rearguards” able to listen, accompany and look out for the processes. Always discreetly, allowing the effects to emerge. Its potency is that of the void: door, bellows, mouth or valley. Rearguards do not decree what ought to be, but evaluate and accompany the forces that are already present. They do not plan what ought to happen, but elaborate diagrams of what is already happening: what’s happening, how it’s happening, where it’s happening. Not plans, but diagrams.
  • the battle-intervention. The battle for the Chinese is not the decisive moment where everything is at stake for everything, the essence of war. That is only the visible material atop the deep wave: it shoots up, crests, and foams. What is decisive is always played out before, in attentive listening to facilitating factors, in the development of the process, in the attentive care of situations, in the discreet accompaniment of potentials. What is visible is not always what is most interesting. What is exciting is not always what is most important.

Hegemony in Gramsci

China and the West are not sealed compartments. Jullien polarises in order to exaggerate the differences and thus see them better, but there are contaminations and cross-cutting lines. For example, thinking on hegemony in Gramsci, the Italian Marxist philosopher. Gramsci was thinking in a Chinese manner when he said: “when the French Revolution took place, it had already been won”. He was referring to the fact that the Enlightenment movement had for years undermined the pillars of the Ancien Regime by proposing another definition of reality: all human beings, independently of their origins, sex or condition, are equal in capacity and dignity. The power of the Ancien Regime was reproduced in the everyday in the habitual ways of understanding relations, labour or politics, under which lay hierarchized visions of the world. The French Revolution, before it was an exceptional move that placed the King in check, was a slow seismic displacement, the elaboration and spreading of another vision of the world. The building of hegemony, according to Gramsci. The event of the Revolution simply picked the ripe fruit (it is also very important to know how to pick the fruit or effect, warns Jullien, before it rots). But what was decisive was not so much the day of the Revolution as the prior process: silent, diffuse, in the atmosphere. A change in climate. Perhaps there was some revolutionary who complained a day before the rising that “nothing is happening, and things in such a bad state”. But in Chinese logic the most important things happen when nothing is happening.

The constitutive process is underway

Jullien or Gramsci set out other images for us to think about strategy and efficacy. Not to pursue a goal directly, but rather to generate it by detecting the facilitating factors and by accompanying the situation potentials. Indirect efficacy, oblique strategies. Something very difficult to accept for our Western pride in author-subjects, for our ‘structural’ need for drama and heroism (the moment of truth), an epic saga (the tale of the exceptional event).

But at any rate, my idea is not to counterpose the ‘good’ images of strategy and efficacy against the ‘bad’ ones and provide a choice, but above all to question the presumptions and implications of traditional strategic thought based in notions of direction (finality) and an overall vision (totality). The problem is the instrumental vision of reality held from here. Processes are not valid in themselves or for the new values that they can engender, or for what we can learn from them. They are only valid in terms of the place they occupy in the Plan. Do they aid the gathering of forces? Are they going in the right direction? They are parts of a whole and points in a pre-established line of time. Traditional strategic thought always involves an act of centralisation that sits badly with the autonomy of situations and their own times and paths.

The ‘constitutive process’, that is, the process, plural and delocalised but simultaneously climatic or atmospheric (general), of deconfiguration of existing reality and the configuration of another reality, is underway. What is crucial is to listen and to tune in to this groundswell. The Republic of the 99% is already here (or else it never will be). It is a matter of deploying it: detecting, developing, articulating and communicating its situation potentials. Great strategy has no dramatic effects, great victory goes unseen.


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  1. Pingback: Strength and Power Reimagining Revolution | Guerrilla Translation!

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