This short piece follows the wide spread activist movements around 2011 and their resulting indifferent developments since. The awoken euphoria, sparked by a collective movement for change, now seems to melt into particularity and wrestles between inclusiveness and exclusiveness, endangered by reactionary ideas of normativity and identity. ACTING UP is less of a statement than an open question on how to confront precarity, inequality and injustice in this situation of seemingly inextricable complexity.
Is acting political still possible?
“Through a dismantling and remodelling of the post-war welfare state, and the democratic rights associated with it, neoliberal globalisation has unleashed what might be called capitalism’s law of increasing precarity.”1 This statement could be taken as the polemic answer to the question: what is wrong with politics today? It puts together the centripetal forces of neoliberalism and the ongoing deconstruction of the welfare state and its global manifestation. This leads to a common and problematic phenomenon: increasing precarity. This concept of precarity, developed in and for the Global North by sociologists in the 1990’s, shall here be understood as the conglomerate of “vulnerabilities that arise from the adoption of neoliberal economic reforms, whereby life is subject to instability and endangerment”.2 But how does precarity work and what accelerates its expansion? Furthermore, what possibilities lie in an analysis of its dynamics for its potential change?
By adapting and updating the concept of gouvernementality, developed by Michel Foucault at end of the 1970’s, a wide range of social theorists and philosophers began to shift their perspectives investigating power, no longer reducing it to a top-down relationship (government-the people), but as a broad range of relations pervading society, working on and producing subjectivity to make individuals governable. Subjectivity in this sense, is not a given and fixed identity of a person. It is the conglomerate of historically evolved forces in a society, that bind together in the individual. The category gender, for example, is part of what constitutes oneself, but it also gives power something to identify as a self. Power, in this scenario, is not just the government inscribing female or male in a passport, but lies in every operation, that works on the basis of gender. There are many more extreme examples including race or class, that work on and with subjectivity, which are easier to grasp. There are also new and more complex forms, which are deeply connected and compatible with individualism and freedom. The sociologist Ullrich Bröckling recognizes these dynamics unfolding in what he calls the entrepreneurial self.3 He outlines a society in which individuals are “addressed as entrepreneurs of their own selves in the most diverse contexts”.4 Organizing the work-life-balance, taking care of diets, creating gym-schedules, or managing romantic relationships with an app – all these habits are linkable to the ‘Project Me’, meaning all the eff ort I am making to be the best (most efficient, most successfull, most beautiful, etc.) version of myself. The self is not only following the path of optimizing its individual life (customized to the specific needs it bears), but constitutes its place in society that’s based on the idea of constant growth. To accomplish this task, or rather the attempt to do so, therefore does not simply make one feel better; it becomes the very condition necessary for participation in social life.
In the face of the 2008 financial crisis and its implicit connection with private loans, Bröckling redefined the conception of the self with another elementary characteristic: the factor of debt.5 Bröckling states: “While the entrepreneurial self is continually concerned with sniffing out profit opportunities, the indebted self must perpetually re-establish its credit rating. (...) The entrepreneurial self is never finished with self-optimizing, while the indebted self can never retire from self-revelation.”6
The combination of these two concepts of the self gives us a rough idea of how a governable individual might appear: Working on and organizing its personalized career, health and relationships while constantly being burdend with the weight of doing so. That keeps it struggling with personal dependencies; the depicted self appears as a prototype of the perfect citizen – or employee. Against the background of the historically unifying moment of power-inadequacies, this also paints a grim picture for what used to be the basis for critique and protest .
“The only way to accede to our rights was to organize, to have a social and collective dimension”7, sociologist Maurizio Lazzarato stated in an 2008 Interview. Neoliberal politics leave less and less space for this idea of collectivity, making trust in the market look like the only option. The power of former agencies such as workers unions have been downscaled by a “governement of inequalities,” the atomization of economic and subsequently political interest groups. “In the past , there was the wage-earner and the unemployed. Now we have the RMI [welfare recipient, P.B.], the unemployed, the intermittent, the part-time worker, the wageearner, the contract worker: there is a multiplication of statuses, speaking of the workforce, which is almost infinite, if you like.”8 The singularization of the working individuals is what makes these processes so dangerous. Personalized carreers develop into personalized struggles. As a result, no territory remains for large-scale, longterm involvements like the workers unions, because unlike them, pressure would have to be built on the market itself. What can be done by those who already are or are becoming precarious individuals? How are they left to explore and exercise their rights?
In 2011, during the peak of the anti-austerity protests in Europe, the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests in New York, and the mass-protests on the Arabic peninsula, as well as northern Africa, the liberal academic discourse experienced enthusiastic claims about new ways of political participation. Witnessing the collaboration of masses of people taking the streets, irreducible to a class or other historical representations of interest, it raised a whole new idea of what protest could look like.
“Political action entails building the conditions for a transformation of what is, starting from the new possibilities contained in the event”9, Lazzarato claims. The clash of different opinions and the formations of unforeseen alliances, brought together not by a predictable cause, but merely a hazy concern for the future, opened the field for the creation of ultimately new ways of thinking and acting together. The political event, the punctual moment in time where these new possibilities arise, is spatialized by Judith Butler in what could be called a space of appearance, “the space that is created (…) precisely between those who act together. (…) over there, between us, in a space that exists only because we are more than one, more than two, plural and embodied.”10 Whilst bodies of course need room and infrastructure — a physical manifestation of historical and symbolic framework — it is the momentary spaces that rise between these bodies that hold the temporal potential for overcoming the symbolic and historical realm, even if only for the sake of appearance itself.
The space created solely by the relation of bodies appears not only in premise, but by a becoming public [werdende Öffentlichkeit] at a specific moment in time, negating a historical interpretation. In here lies the essence of a polical act, which remains untouched by changes or rescissions in relation to the resulting movements around 2011.
The ongoing spread and aggravation of the multiple appearances of precarity uncovers the growing void of social justice in globalizing societies - or rather the dysfunction of its underlying concept in the first place. This void could be the punctum and momentum where all differences recede to cast a light on the indifference of the struggle. Even the fundamental ideas of protest and resistance might take a whole new form, one that cannot be compared to their historically evolved understanding and which could ultimatily challenge power’s forces with its novelty. As Slavoj Žižek puts it, “wherever the global capitalist system is forced to violate its own rules, there is an opportunity to insist that it follows those rules.”11 The indebted entrepreneur represents one of the latest (and for capitalism one of the most dangerous) infractions, because at a certain point, it disables its #1 rule of growth.
Could organizing and initiating the conditions for the political event therefore be the stencil for a (be)coming political act?