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Welcome to the age of resistance

I plead guilty to the indictment of avowed optimism. We have entered an age of resistance for which we must build an analytics. New forms, strategies and subjects of resistance and insurrection appear regularly without knowledge of or guidance from Badiou, Zizek or Negri.

On 17 June 2011, I was invited to address the Syntagma Square occupation in Athens. After the talks, following the usual procedure, members of the occupation who had their number drawn came to the front to speak to the 10,000 people present. One man in particular was shaking and trembling with evident symptoms of stagefright before his address. He then proceeded to give a beautiful talk in perfectly formed sentences and paragraphs, presenting a complete and persuasive plan for the future of the movement. ‘How did you do it?’ I asked him later, ‘I thought you were going to collapse.’ ‘When I started speaking’, he replied nonchalantly, ‘I was mouthing the words but someone else was speaking. A stranger inside me was dictating what to say.’ Many participants in the recent insurrections and revolts make similar statements. My recent work addresses this stranger in me (a usual description of the unconscious), this miraculous transubstantiation shared by people in different parts of the world.[1]

The ‘new world order’ announced in 1989 was the shortest in history, coming to an abrupt end in 2008.  Protests, riots and uprisings have erupted all over the world. Neither the mainstream nor the radicals had predicted the wave and this led to a frantic search for historical precedents. A former director of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service thought it, ‘a revolutionary wave, like 1848’. Paul Mason agrees:  ‘There are strong parallels – above all with 1848, and with the wave of discontent that preceded 1914.’ [2] Alain Badiou suspects a possible ‘rebirth of history’ in a new age of ‘riots and uprisings’ after a long revolutionary ‘interval’.[3] Eventually however history is miscarried or stillborn and Badiou strongly disagrees with my statement that we have entered an age or resistance.

At a conference in Paris in January 2013, I was on the same panel with Badiou. After my presentation, Alain started: ‘I certainly admire the eloquence of my friend and comrade Costas Douzinas, who has buttressed his avowed optimist with precise references to what he takes to be the political novelties of the peoples’ resistance in Greece, where he has even discerned the emergence of a new political subject.’ When I heard the next point I thought I had misunderstood: While the courage and inventiveness of the resistance is a cause of enthusiasm, it is neither novel nor effective. The same things happened in May 68, in Tahrir Square and even ‘in the times of Spartacus or Thomas Munzer.’ [4]  

I plead guilty to the indictment of avowed optimism. We have entered an age of resistance. New forms, strategies and subjects of resistance and insurrection appear regularly without knowledge of or guidance from Badiou, Zizek or Negri. Their timing is unpredictable but their occurrence certain. As resistances spread around the world from the austerity-hit countries to Turkey and Brazil, the former poster boys of neo-liberalism, to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ukraine, philosophy has the responsibility to explore the contemporary return of resistance and to develop an analytics of resistance.

In a more strategic sense, it is importance to follow Kant’s advice in his late political essays, something of a vote of confidence for philosophical public relations avant la lettre. In Kant’s philosophy of history, nature guarantees the eventual civil union of humanity in a cosmopolitan future. But given the chance of a public hearing, the philosopher must keep preaching the inevitability of cosmopolitanism, offering a helping hand to providence. In a similar fashion and after the repeated claims about the ‘end of history’, the ‘end of ideology’ and the new world order, it is important for the left to proclaim that radical change has become possible again. 

In the twentieth century, the left collected a long list of prophets and groupuscules promising the re-foundation of the one and only or the correct communist organisation. In earlier interventions, Badiou explained that the ‘resistance’ (in ironic quotation marks) of the anti-globalisation movement was a creation of power. The movement is ‘a wild operator’ of globalisation and ‘seeks to sketch out, for the imminent future, the forms of comfort to be enjoyed by our planet’s idle petite bourgeoisie.’ [5] Warming to the theme, Badiou proceeded to attack Negri (‘a backward romantic’) who is fascinated by capital’s ‘flexibility and violence’. He called the multitude a ‘dreamy hallucination’, which claims the right for our ‘planet’s idle... to enjoy without doing anything, while taking special care to avoid any form of discipline, whereas we know that discipline, in all fields, is the key to truths.’ Finally, he dismissed the category of the ‘movement’ because it is ‘coupled to the logic of the state’; politics must construct ‘new forms of discipline to replace the discipline of political parties.’[6]

According to this version, the communist resistance should stay away from the state, adopt the idea of communism and create a highly disciplined organisation which acts towards the people in a directive and authoritarian manner. It ‘wants to celebrate its own dictatorial authority, dictatorial because democratic ad infinitum’.[7]  

This is the type of organisation that recent resistances rejected and with good cause: both because of the history of the left and, more importantly, because the socio-economic changes of late capitalism have made the concept of a Leninist organisation not just redundant but undesirable and counterproductive.

From a totally different if not opposed perspective and with greater interest in the pleasure principle than the death drive (and in parties than in the party), Howard Caygill’s recent book seems to share the pessimism.[8] Its last lines refer to contemporary resistances and conclude: ‘Resistance is engaged in defiant delegitimization of existing and potential domination but without any prospect of a final outcome in the guise of a revolutionary or reformist result or solution… The politics of resistance is disillusioned and without end.’

But despite the reservations of the pessimists, resistance and revolution are in the air. It looks however as if Hegel’s ‘owl of Minerva’ has not left its nest. Is this because we are not at ‘dusk’ yet? In other words, the philosophers cannot respond to the political and social upheaval because the epoch of resistance is not close to ending, as Hegel thought? Or, is it the result of a certain theoretical and political sclerosis on the part of theoretical radicals?

Failure, defeat, persecution and the attendant paranoia are marks of the left. The left has learned to be under attack, to fail, to lose and wallow in the defeat. An enduring masochism lurks in the best leftist books: many are stories of failure and variable rationalisation. It is true that the left has lost a lot: a united analysis and movement, the working class as political subject, the inexorable forward movement of history, planned economy as an alternative to capitalism. It is also true that the falling masonry of the Berlin wall hit western socialists more than the old Stalinists. Using Freud’s terms, the necessary and liberating mourning for the love object of revolution has turned into permanent melancholy. In mourning, the libido finally withdraws from the lost object and is displaced onto another. In melancholy, it ‘withdraws into the ego'. This withdrawal serves to 'establish an identification of the ego with the abandoned object'.[9]

Walter Benjamin has called this ‘left melancholy’: the attitude of the militant who is attached more to a particular political analysis or ideal—and to the failure of that ideal—than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present.[10] For his part, Benjamin calls upon the left to grasp the ‘time of the now’, while for the melancholic, history is an ‘empty time’ of repetition. Part of the left is narcissistically fixed to its lost object with no obvious desire to abandon it.  Left melancholy leads inexorably to the fetishism of small differences: politically, it appears in the interminable conflicts, splits and vituperation amongst erstwhile comrades. Attacks on the closest, the threatening double, are more vicious than those on the enemy. Theoretically, according to Benjamin, left melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. In our contemporary setting, we have a return to a particular type of grand theory, which combines an obsession with the explanation of life, the universe and everything with the anxiety of influence. The shadows and ghosts of the previous generation of greats weigh down on the latest missionaries of the encyclopaedia.

The most important reason why radical theory has been unable to fully comprehend recent resistances is perhaps  the ‘anxiety of the grand narrative’. A previous generation of radical intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Edward Thomposn and Louis Althusser had close links with the movements of their time. Contemporary radical philosophers are found more often in lecture rooms than street corners.

The wider ‘academisation’ of radical theory and its close proximity with ‘interdisciplinary’ and cultural studies departments has changed its character. These academic fields have been developed as a result of university funding priorities. They happily welcome the appeal of radical philosophers contributing to their celebrity value. But this weakening of the link between practice and theory has an adverse effect on theory construction. The desire for a ‘radical theory of everything’ caused by the ‘anxiety of influence’ created by the previous generation of philosophical greats does not help overcome the limitations of disembodied abstraction.

It is no surprise that many European leftists are happy to celebrate the late Chavez, Morales or Correa and to carry out radical politics by proxy, while ready to dismiss what happens in our part of the world as irrelevant or misguided. It may feel better to lose gloriously than to win even with a few compromises.

Repeated defeats do not help the millions whose lives have been devastated by neoliberal capitalism and post-democratic governance. What the left needs is not a new model party or an all-encompassing brilliant theory. It needs to learn from the popular resistances that broke out without leaders, parties or common ideology and to build on the energy, imagination and novel institutions created.   The left needs a few successes after a long interval of failures. Greece is perhaps the best chance for the European left. The persistent and militant resistances sank two austerity governments and currently the Radical Left party Syriza is likely to be the first elected radical government in Europe.   The historical chance has been created not by party or theory but by ordinary people who are well ahead of both and adopted this small protest party as the vehicle that would complement in Parliament the fights in the streets. The political and intellectual responsibility of radical intellectuals everywhere is to stand in solidarity of the Greek left.

For an older generation of militants, theory is a weapon in politics. From this perspective, I have argued in my recent book that forms, subjects and strategies of resistance emerge within and against the circuits of power, reacting and rearranging its operations. To explain their multiplication and intensification, we must start with an exploration of the state of affairs they stand up to, the disastrous combination of neoliberal capitalism and the almost terminal decay of parliamentary democracy. All recent resistances from Tahrir, to Syntagma, Taksim and Sarajevo seem to respond to one or the other and usually both. It is therefore important to start the analysis of the age of resistance with an examination of certain common trends. Let me summarise them.

First, the economic and social landscape of immaterial neoliberal capitalism. Its logic is privatizing and anti-state, deterritorialising. But at the same time, however, as profit becomes rent and interest, capitalism calls for increased regulation and policing.

Secondly, we must explore the global bio-political organization with its two sides: in a period of fake growth, personal libertarianism, hedonism and consumerism, the injunction to mandatory pleasure. Every ‘I desire x’ has become ‘I have a right to x’. When austerity inescapably arrives, the emphasis flips onto its reverse side, the controlling of populations. Individual happiness and choice, all the rage in the previous period, disappears. The individual is abandoned, mandatory pleasure becomes the prohibition of pleasure in order to save the DNA of the nation.

These developments have serious effects for the politics of law. Legality is used by the elites in order to prevent and criminalise disobedience and resistance. The previous emphasis on controlled freedom turns into a limited state of exception, police repression and widespread exclusion.

Global analysis must always be adjusted to the local context. Resistances are always locally situated. Each case therefore must be examined in the context of local histories, conditions, the spatially and temporally located balance of power. The explosion, multiplication and condensation of different struggles and campaigns depends crucially on the kairos, the timely moment and often a random catalyst such as the death of Alexis Grigoropoulos in Athens 2008, Mohamed Boazizi in Tunisia in 2010, or Mark Duggan in London, 2011.

A spontaneous insurrection is the point where the complementarity or coupling of promised freedom of consumer choice with behavioural control and police repression unravels. The first site of conflict is therefore de- and re-subjectification, the disarticulation of people from the position of desiring and consuming machines and their emergence as resisting subjectivities (the ‘stranger in me’). The stake in most struggles is the re-politicisation of politics by introducing an active element of direct democracy into our ailing and ageing constitutional arrangements. Three new forms of politics have emerged responding to the tendencies and subjectivities of late capitalism.

First, the expendable, redundant humans, the homines sacri of our world. Such are the undocumented or sans papiers immigrants, those for whom the Mediterranean has become a floating graveyard. Here resisting subjectivity often takes the form of martyrdom - witnessing and sacrifice - and of exodus.

Second, the bio-politically excluded: the unemployed and unemployable, young and old, people who exist socially but are invisible to the political system. Resistance takes the form of insurrection, occasionally rioting. Subjectivity takes the form of violent acting out. What they demand is not this or that right, so much as the ‘right to have rights’, to be considered part of the social contract.

Finally, democratic disenfranchisement. Here the dominant form is the occupation of squares and other public spaces by multitudes of men and women of all ideologies, ages, occupations and the many unemployed. Immaterial production promotes networking but not political cooperation, communication but not ideological identities, collaboration based on atomisation and self-interest. The occupied squares are the place where the dissidents put into political practice the skills of networking and collaboration we have learnt for work. Young people were told for thirty years that they would get a good life, if they study, get degrees, keep learning new skills. Over 60% of European youth have post-secondary education and exactly the same skills as their rulers. They are now the precariat. One thousand unemployed lawyers, engineers and doctors are more revolutionary than one thousand unemployed workers. These are the indignados of Tahrir Squre, Puerta del Sol, Syntagma and Taksim.

Elaborate working groups provide essential services in the occupied squares. In Athens for example, food, health, cultural and educational activities and media presence were provided by professionals, many with higher degrees but permanently unemployed. The daily and thematic assemblies as well as the working groups organise themselves under a strict axiom of equality. Whoever is in the square, everyone and anyone, is entitled to an equal share of time to put across his views.  The views of the unemployed and the university professor are given equal time, discussed with equal vigour and put to the vote for adoption.  Here the right to resistance joins equality, the second great revolutionary right, and changes it from a conditioned norm into an unconditional axiom: People are free and equal; each counts as one in all relevant groups.[11]

The occupied squares create a constituent counter-power, which splits the social space between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Their direct democracy both parodies representative institutions by providing efficiently the services currently privatized and also pre-figures a new constitutional and institutional architecture. Let me conclude by offering seven theses towards an analytics of resistance:

1. Resistance is a law of being. It is internal to its object. From the moment being takes form, or a power asymmetry is established, it encounters resistances which irreversibly twist and fissure it.

2. Resistance is always situated. Resistances are local and multiple, they emerge concretely in specific conditions, responding to a situation, state of affairs or event.

3. Resistance is a mixture of reaction and action, negation and affirmation. Reactive resistance conserves and restores the state of things. The active borrows, mimics and subverts the adversary’s arms in order to invent new rules, institutions, situations.

4. Resistance is a process or experience of subjectivisation. We become new subjects, the ‘stranger in me emerges’ when we experience a split in identity. Because my particular existence has failed, because identity is split and cannot be completed, I pass from daily routine identity to the universality of resistance. It  involves risk and perseverance: resistance is the courage of freedom.

5. Resistance is first a fact, not an obligation. It is not the idea or the theory of justice or communism that leads to resistance, but the sense of injustice, the bodily reaction to hurt, hunger, despair. The idea of justice and equality are maintained or lost as a result of the existence and extent of resistance and not the other way around.

6. Resistance becomes political and may succeed in radically changing the balance of forces, if it becomes collective and condenses, temporarily or permanently, a number of causes, a multiplicity of struggles and local and regional grievances bringing them all together in a common central place and time.

Persistence, encampment, staying on in a public place and turning it into the agora or the forum may help to create the demos in its opposition to the elites.  At that (unpredictable) point, resistance may become the hegemonic force. This has happened in a few places in the last few years. The possible betrayal of the revolution later does not change the fact that people in the streets have learned that they may overthrow the strongest of rulers. 

7. While resistance is a fact not an obligation, the subject of resistance emerges through the exercise of the right to resist, the oldest, indeed the only natural right. Right has two metaphysical sources. As recognized will, right accepts the order of things and dresses the dominant particular with the mantle of the universal. But as a will that wills what does not exist, right finds its force in itself and its effect in an open cosmos that cannot be fully determined by (financial, political or military) might. The resisting will forms an agonistic universality created by a diagonal division of the social world, which separates rulers from the ruled and the excluded.

[1] Costas Douzinas, Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis (Polity, 2013).

[2] Paul Mason, Why it’s Kicking off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (London, Verso, 2012), 65.

[3] Alain Badiou, The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings (London, Verso, 2012), 38.

[4] Alain Badiou, ‘Our Contemporary Impotence’, 181 Radical Philosophy, September-October 2013, 43.

[5] Alain Badiou, ‘Beyond Formalisation’, An Interview conducted by Pater Hallward and Bruno Bosteels (Paris, July, 2 2002) in Bruno Bosteels, Badiou and Politics (Durham, Duke University Press, 2011), 318-350.

[6] id., 336, 337.

[7] The rebirth of history, 97.

[8] Howard Caygill, On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance’ (Bloomsbury, 2013), 208.

[9] Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, in Vol. 14, The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, (Hogarth, 1957), 249.

[10] Walter Benjamin, “Left-Wing Melancholy,” in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, ed. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay and Edward Dimendberg (University of California Press, 1994), 305.

[11] Costas Douzinas, ‘Philosophy and the Right to Resistance’ in Douzinas and Gearty, The Meanings of Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

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About the author

Costas Douzinas is a Member of Parliament in Greece representing Syriza and serves as Chair of the Standing Committee on National Defence and Foreign Relations. He is also Professor of Law and Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London. He is a regular contributor for the Guardian and his latest book Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis (Polity) was released in 2013.

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