Politics Without the State

The Seattle Research Institute is trying to bridge the gap between academic and journalistic discourse, and to open a new space for a new generation, and a new sort, of “public intellectual.” Over the past few years, they’ve been a vital presence here in Seattle, sponsoring lectures, readings, and performances, as well as publishing two volumes of essays, with more to come. I finally got around to reading their first book, Politics Without the State, by Nic Veroli and others, and edited by Diana George and Charles Tonderai Mudede. (It was originally published in 2002, and has just been reprinted).
Politics Without the State is a brilliant polemic, one of the few I’ve read recently that is actually worth arguing with, rather than just dismissing. Veroli et al. argue for a politics of joy and imaginative expansion, in contrast to the politics of terror and restriction purveyed by the IMF and the US government, no less than by Al Qaeda.They focus on how the current world order works affectively, rather than just economically and ideologically or cognitively. Against “the communication of terror by a private corporate media oligopoly that functions in tandem with a state apparatus”, they advocate “a universal communication” of invention, of joy, and of bodies. The goal that they envision is “gaining collective, participatory control over the imaginary processes through which our identities and desires are instituted.” This means inventing new forms of sociality, imagining alternatives to global capitalism precisely at the moment when we are endlessly being told that no alternative is conceivable.
The theoretical inspiration for all this comes from Deleuze and Guattari, and Negri and Hardt, and to a certain extent Zizek; and before them, from such nomadic thinkers (as Deleuze calls them) as Spinoza (for his theory of affect) and Gabriel Tarde (for his theory of sociality). (They also cite C. L. R. James, as well as some German thinkers I am alas only vaguely familiar with, like Negt and Kluge, and Enzsenzberger).
But there is also a pragmatic inspiration, or one deriving from practice, which has a lot to do with why and how Politics Without the State is more than just an academic exercise. Veroli et al are inspired by the successful Seattle anti-WTO protests of 1999 and by the Zapatistas in Mexico, as well as by the ongoing (and not quite as successful) efforts in the alternative media to develop a counter-narrative to the official “manufacturing of consent” to imperial adventurism in the wake of 9/11.
So what is it that I want to argue with in Veroli et al’s account? I suppose I could put it down to my own neurotic doom and gloom that I find them (as I do Hardt and Negri) way too optimistic. However attractive it is to call for a revolutionary politics of gratified desire, in opposition to the old-fashioned (Leninist) ethos of sacrifice and discipline, I am not really convinced by such a vision. It’s the old problem that Wilhelm Reich ran into: if the masses (or, to use the more up-to-date Negrian term, the multitude) are orgasmically sated and satisfied, they aren’t going to rebel for anything more than their orgasms. While I’m all for “irruptions of idleness, perverse delights, useless pursuits” (Veroli and George), I don’t believe that such “practices of desertion” are radical acts, or threats to the consumerist world order. And although I’m as much in credit card hell as anyone, I also don’t believe that “our mounting debts, even as they topple us, will bring the system in upon itself, effectively sucking the money away from globalization’s larger agenda,” as Robert Corbett playfully (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) proposes. (For one thing, because the problem for world capitalism is not overconsumption, but precisely the reverse: overproduction).
In addition, I wish that anarcho-collectivists, like Veroli et al, would get over their negative fetishization of “the State” as the source of all evil. I know this may make me sound like an old-line marxist fundamentalist, but I’m sorry: the State is not the problem, multi- and transnational capital is. Bush’s police state tactics are in the service of Halliburton, and not the reverse. Deleuze and Guattari write somewhere of the “minimal State,” pioneered by Pinochet and Thatcher, and reaching fruition today under Bush. This is when the State abdicates all forms of authority except for its policing and military functions (and even those are being privatized to a good extent), in order to give capital a freer hand at ever-more horrific forms of exploitation. That, rather than State power, is the main danger, the real source of terror, today. Bush is truly a “crowned anarchist,” destroying the State far more radically than any left anarchists have dreamed.
Similarly, it’s the IMF and the World Bank and free-trade agreements like NAFTA that are the greatest antagonists of the State today, since they are precisely negating any form of independence or local sovereignty, in order to allow for the unimpeded expansion of flows of capital, and in order to further privatize all forms of social life.
So when Veroli dismisses the importance of public services like those of the New Deal, on the grounds that such services were only extracted from the State by the threat of “large mass movements” (which is not untrue in itself), he’s speaking from a position of luxury that fails to acknowledge what a big difference such services have made in many people’s lives however inadequate such services are. And when he says that “it is unlikely that today’s mass movements will be satisfied by a New Deal, even a global one,” I can only throw up my hands in exasperation: it’s like saying that starving people will not be satisfied with access to middle-class American meals, because anything less than the banquets of ancient Rome is oppressive and unfair.
In short, I take the rather unfashionable position that a progressive and democratic politics today must strive to reinvent the State, not bypass it or destroy it. “Politics without the State” is a chimera.

3 Responses to “Politics Without the State”

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  2. The State Vs. The Corporation

    via Abe: Steven Shaviro weighs in on the politics of anarchism. I agree with Steven on most of his points, but I would like to suggest some ideas: While I’m all for “irruptions of idleness, perverse delights, useless pursuits” (Veroli and George), I do…

  3. antipopper says:

    the siege of civilization

    I almost totally lost it yesterday. Not only did French parliament vote to ban the Muslim hijab in public schools by something like a 16:1 ratio, but I lost a long and involved post about it. The short of it:…