Against the Machine

Translation of article by Pablo Bustinduy, published on Madrilonia 23rd January.

Image: Ramón Rodríguez

Against the Machine

“People still try to talk about the transition without considering the strength of fascism” – Antonio Negri

Faced with the obstinate drama of the crisis, a whole chorus of voices deplores that states should have lost a large part of their sovereignty. And no doubt there is a degree of truth to their lament: no-one is in doubt any longer (starting with the head of government, who beyond the odd bout of bar-room bravado, recognises his vassal status) that the Spanish state is a protectorate with no say in fundamental matters. Strange the sovereign, Schmitt would say, that specifically may not make decisions about that which places its existence at stake. And perhaps this amputation might serve to explain the pre-political allergy brought about on the right, but also on a large part of the left of the regime, by the Catalan independence drive: the clamour from the multidude of la Diada, the demand for its right to decide [dret a decidir, in Catalan], was like a cruel reminder of lost power. In his Ethics, Spinoza definds envy as a form of hate that produces pain at the idea of the other’s happiness, and in reverse, joy at the idea of their pain. Spinoza opposes envy with emulation, “the desire for something, brought about in us by imagining that others have the same desire”. But the establishment does not wish to emulate the Catalan process: it wishes to hate it, it wishes only its failure, and this is further proof of its impotence.

The problem, however, is that on both sides of the Ebro this whole emotional swarm hides something more decisive and fundamental. When it is said, as often happens, that the State has lost its sovereignty, we should not automatically think about the black hole of the Bundestag, nor in the Goyaesque spectacle of those European summits that more and more people recognise as the face of the enemy. The problem of the crisis is not that Brussels has become the great Leviathan, nor does its solution entail a return to the cult of the sovereign, that all-powerful monster that normalises its subjects according to its taste and whim: that is the old dream of Le Pen, the dream of golden dawns and the Castillian ‘recentralisation’ camouflaged as union, progress and democracy. That dream is a nightmare, and moreover impossible. To think that sovereignty can be ‘recovered’ just as it was ‘ceded’ in the past is to fail to understand that sovereignty, as with power, is not an object that can be possessed, alienated or transferred, but above all a relation, an order of potency [potencia], a certain capacity in relation to others [capacidad de].

It is quite similar to the myth of Giges, as told by Glaucon in the Republic: Giges found a ring that allowed him to turn invisible, and he used it to conceal the violence necessary to kill the king, seduce the queen and seize power with impunity. In a similar fashion, the European Union is not a juridical subject in opposition to states, but a process that is diminishing in its capacity to hide another capacity, the basic capacity of any democracy: that of establishing times, horizons and priorities, of deciding about what is common, or, to use Schmitt’s terminology, to name and take charge of its own situation. In this clash of two capacities, two processes, two potencies, the confrontation is not between the European Union and states (and Tsipras showed his worth some months back in not giving in, despite the criticisms, on the battle of the euro: the fortress to be laid siege, to be conquered, to be socialised, is the European Central Bank, it is the sum of contradictions that is rendered invisible behind its veil of necessity and ignorance). The confrontation is between its overall operation to salvage capitalism and the incipient democracy that resists it: what one side alienates and conceals until rendering it intransitive, the other profanes and brings closer, socialises, seeks to place in common. Hence the statist norm encounters more and more problems to settle, and hence states have to make use of ever more brutal semi-exceptional mechanisms to combat a social reality that eludes them: reality repels the norm that lays siege to it, that overwhelms it, that threatens it, and the norm is merely capable of draining this loss with ever greater doses of violence.

The result of this conflict is that we live in a split reality, bloody and affected by an unbearable paradox: the populations of the south of Europe suffer a progressively greater violence exercised legally in their own name. By making it seem as if they had no choice, states show no mercy to their citizens, alleging that they “are only obeying orders”, whilst shielding themselves in the fiction of representation to uphold the legitimacy accorded through votes. It matters little that this legitimacy reaches minimum levels that were near impossible to imagine only a few months ago. According to the latest opinion polls, the total votes between the PP and the PSOE in the general elections would account for little more than half the valid cast vote, which, in a scenario of average participation would give them the vote of more or less one in every three Spanish citizens with a right to vote, compared with 64% in 2008. They know that they will keep on falling, they know that they are blowing apart the precarious social pact of the transition, and that their power rests on an ever more fragile base. It does not matter, because that’s what the fiction of representation is for: the sum of PP and PSOE concentrates the highest dose of institutional power in recent history. They will keep doing the same thing as long as they are not faced with a greater opposing force, prepared to neutralise them and occupy, in a different manner, the same space that they now govern with the impunity of a despot.

The problem is simple: there is no longer an inside and an outside, but fronts on which the two forces must clash, fronts that advance or recede according to the spaces and processes that get controlled, which each side appropriates and puts to work in its favour. From this perspective, the situation is desperate. Europe right now is a battlefield in which democracy only controls its own rearguard. Hence why it is urgent to multiply the expropriation of these spaces. Part of this strategy consists of recovering the distinction between democracy, understood as a popular force of resistance and construction, and elections, as a mere statist mechanism for the selection of leaders. Any option for survival entails democratising elections: demythologising them, removing their normal status, blocking the reproduction of the fiction of representation, thereby opening up the apparatuses of state power to a process of real democratisation. This is not simply a matter of planning to “take power” becaue power is not taken, but rather is always exercised in a complex and sinuous manner, never in a straight line and occurring only once. The institutions cannot appear as a political end in itself, nor as a means to achieve something else afterwards (we already know what the State usually does with these temporal horizons: devour them in mouthfuls like Saturn with his children). But it is becoming more and more clear that denying the need to fight for institutional spaces is to resign oneself to defeat a priori. It is also, paradoxically, to continue on beneath the spell of the cult of the sovereign: in the figure of the beautiful soul who denies it from the outside, the State is kept alive like that other who, just like the ghost in Hamlet, will not stop reappearing.

Is voting the solution to the problem? Of course not. In his renowned treatise on civil disobedience, Thoreau said that “voting for the right is doing nothing for it”. But today this is a false alternative, because the two things have to be built: a real popular power that resists and persists in the task of hegemonising a new democratic grammar, and also an electoral tool that can use this grammar as a battering ram, that can break down the door of the fortress from inside and facilitate the move from resistance to a real and autonomous democratic construction. From Syriza to the CUP, numerous experiments are seeking to show that there are ways of pulling together different planes of articulation, of making them complement each other, even if beforehand one does not have the answers for what is going to happen afterward (and perhaps, precisely because of this). It is possible that some of these experiments may fail, or that right now the tool for extending them to other places does not exist, or that the efforts to achieve it do not give results. But it is a path to follow. Thoreau said in that same essay:

“All machines have their friction (…) but when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.”

Let us not have such a machine any longer. Against the unbearable friction of the sovereign, there are no weapons other than democratic capacity: to struggle in numerous places at the same time, to unite different points in a single line of resistance.

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