Notes for the Future – After Free Cooperation

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My appreciation to those who let it all hang out and cooperate in Buffalo, and generally on the Free Cooperation list. I personally had a great time and Nathalie Magnan back in gay Paree was with us in spirit retrospectively as I told her all about it!

It was a pleasure to do the opposite of the typical academic shtick in a literally desktop environment.

On the last night of the conference Christoph Spehr and I had a conversation around a Thai dinner table that sparked many ideas, which I’d like to share with you. I am told that some people at the conference already found our public ruminations a little abstract and Eurocentric, and I’m afraid this attempt at a look into the political future may not be much better. Plus I’m also not sure that Christoph will entirely recognize our conversation when I get done with it – but anyway, here goes:

Both of us basically think that the staying power of the long-lived, nasty, dinosaur-toothed political compromise known as neoliberalism is just about over. Wave it goodbye with massive protest and no regret. Its death throes are burning down cities, an ugly situation which may yet get worse. But the abysmally unequal exchange of finance-driven globalization has unleashed such deep conflicts – both those unfolding violently since September 11 and the civic unrest of the worldwide antiglobalization movement – that the hegemony originally put together by Reagan and Thatcher is likely to become unglued. It just ain’t working. The long economic crisis that began in Mexico in 1994, peaked with the Argentine default, the Enron and Worldcom bankruptcies, the falling value of the dollar, and now has made a permanent war footing look like a viable alternative to the Imperial elites, is only the most obvious sign of this likely collapse. Another is the systematic paranoia of the total
information obsession, which will not stand despite the fact that “we have the technology.” Symmetrical to this control obsession is the epistemological fragility of instantly produced-and-traded knowledge: despite and sometimes even because of the transmission magicians, no one is sure anymore of what the data might mean, and the volatility of the conceptual and informational environment has made coherent governance almost impossible. Meanwhile a groundswell of critique, still almost inaudible for you in the US, is daily growing. The defeat of Aznar’s party in Spain is a harbinger of the end. For the Latin American governments and peoples – Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela – it’s already clear that there is no alternative to the task of finding another way to run society. And now part of our job, everywhere, for years still to come, is to push these bastards out along with their ideas and their values and their geostrategies and their legal procedures and their organiz
ational models and their modular management and their cynical Gucci ties and their bloodsucking IP ideologies, not to mention – to touch closer bases with some of you – their start-up opportunism and their shameless cooptation of practically any kind of art that glitters. Vampires go home! It’s time to seriously revile the living dead, and start taking care of the walking wounded.

And by the way, don’t forget to go on destroying the core programs of the WTO, IMF, World Bank, Davos, WIPO, EU, NAFTA, FTAA, and the others. International institutions for vital negotiations? OK – but not with even of a shadow of the programs we have known for the last 25 years. Total opposition otherwise, to the GATS first of all. It’s the only way to start living again.

While the transition drags on, what we can fear on the peripheries of the world-system is simply more war: whether the outright obscene agression of the Imperial center, as we see right now, or the covert fomentation of local fascist (that is, armed, right-wing, elite-driven) resistance to any attempts to change the rules of social cooperation toward a more egalitarian system. I’m thinking here particular of dangerous Latin America (and today, of Caracas).

What we can expect to see in the center is a classic displacement of the basic violence of economic relations into the political sphere where arguments and ideologies dispute the stage, before becoming governing regulations. I’m thinking of Eurostan, of the upcoming swing to rose (colored glasses, means: social democracy). And if you think it’s green, try washing it first!

Among the interesting perspectives (and this is already obvious) is the fact that the inclusion of libertarian ideas (i.e. anarchism for you Yanks) in the neoliberal construction can no longer hold. Thatcher-Reagan / Clinton-Blair was convincing because it was supposed to make you free of big government; that’s down the tubes. Blair has outlived himself and his Home Secretary Blunkett now proposes jailing people for just associating with (suspected) terrorists, which is not exactly an encouragement of free association. All the philosophies that propose any kind or degree of self-government or self-organisation can no longer expect the slightest thing from the former great white solution to bureaucratic stalinism, i.e. neoliberalism; and who doesn’t see anarchy rising all around, often in the best, deepest, most philosophical sense? The ugly right-wing libertarianism of 80s America is going to defect from the present and successive governments, hopefully just to wither and die
. There is a historical opportunity to recover and rework some of the finest philosophies of emancipation.

By the same token, though, the dissolution of free-market teleologies (free trade leads to paradise) opens the door again to neo-Keynesian central prodding, which seeks salvation in the myth of a return to full employment, and in the familiar old vocabulary of stimulating consumption to provoke virtuous circles of industrial growth. This regressive approach can only maintain its illusions within a restrictive national frame, and more fundamentally, within a game of inclusion/exclusion whose all-too-familiar figure is the contrast between privileged union labor and unguaranteed temp services (Mcjobs, as they say in the late great USA) or, of course, unemployment,exclusion. You could think of these keynesian proposals as the Ghost of Forced Cooperation Past. They sound much better than Workfare, but the gifts come heavily loaded with paternalistic morality, industrial and semiotic consumerism, nuclear confidence, a big oil thirst and ecological disaster. We could do a lot bett

Christoph says one danger is that the radical left (I mean, the real one) won’t have anything to propose for the transition. Of course in the US, the more obvious danger is that there simply won’t be a transition. There is clearly a very strong program to use terrorism as a constant excuse to keep everyone alienated and afraid while police legitimacy runs high and the population gets used (like in Coetzee’s book on Empire) to the rumblings from the frontiers. The fever bouts of neofascism aren’t going to go away on the Old Continent either. You can imagine a form of rhetorical governance that would constantly appeal to racism, while continuing to build an economy on immigrant labor and exploitation of the peripheries. In this scenario the social democrats would be cowed, the alienated fringe would live entirely underground and cunning businessmen would use working-class thugs in uniforms to cajol the votes of the bland and trembling retirees, while the former yuppies cultivat
e their gated gardens. If you can really imagine that scenario, though, you ought to be ashamed. The Argentines kicked the bastards out. If we can’t do the same, why bother with anything?

Christoph’s question is the real one: how to insert at least elements of a truly leftist agenda in a future that will not be the repetition of any past we know? He thinks one of the keys is to understand strategically that there are different forms of the political, which can be invested simultaneously even in they yield different results and are not all the same, nor equally satisfying. Social movements, unions, parties, community organisations, transnational networks, local administrations, free associations: on all these levels there is a strong presence of the twin, problematic call for equality and the right to difference (the form of the political party being strictly relative in importance – not anathema, but strictly relative). The thing is that each of the struggles should leave something tangible and transversal behind it (self-governed territories and buildings, laws, social apportionments, rights, living cultural spaces). Common goods are the clearest beacon. Only
by developing practicable notions of the common – unrivalrous, free-access goods which are not made unusable by the restrictive, identifying, subjecting categories of bureaucratic management – can we hope for a more socialized and anarchist future.

Everywhere the information economy flickers, the agenda in my view is perfectly clear. Not only education, but the means of production for all highly individualized, informational and affective production have to receive much more social funding. Free time is something to win. The Welfare State can be reinvented by the flexworkers: Mayday! Mayday! There is only one possibility to begin reviving democracy: more independent media, and more spaces of debate, in relation to social movements whose transgressive action in society is protected by solidarity and diffuse support. This is what must be put on the political agenda, along with living wages and guaranteed incomes. Otherwise, the media oligarchies rule. But to get beyond the stranglehold, it’s vital to recognize your cause in the other’s. The molecular struggles are complicated, it isn’t possible or desirable to be everywhere at once. The antiglobalization movement has reinvented a marxist analysis of the economy, an anarch
ist style of networked organization, and a confrontational stance that’s essential. It also forgot almost everything that had been learned by feminism, identity politics, even the philosophy of difference, not to mention all that’s valuable in the old workers’ movement traditions, like popular education. Class (re)composition is everything, and it means that you and your friends are always only part of a larger and evolving, internally contradictory whole. What else did we see in Seattle, in Genoa, in Buenos Aires? The spaces, ethics and infrastructure of free cooperation are all collective, and the simple theory of this politics (simple compared to its actual practice) is still lacking. Engaged theoreticians can get over their guilt trips about uselessness.

All of that sounds utopian and distant in a little place that is somehow home for all of us, and even the blackest of the black and the reddest of the red: I mean the USA, the hegemon, the inventor of the new processes, the Home of the Free and the Brave. Here is where the knot of the problem lies, for all of us. Not a single one of the ideas connected to free cooperation, or to the virtual possibles of the multitudes, is receivable in the US today. At this point, it’s the monster. We have to accept that. Our country is the cancer again, just like when I was growing up during the Vietnam War. We have to find the strength of alienation to undermine this thing till it keels over. Obviously we have to go out and vote for the soldier John Kerry – but don’t think this thing is going to be over so fast. The USA has become a pathogen, and the disease is everywhere – it runs through all the Imperial elites. It’s worse than the air-conditioned nightmare, it’s incomparable. But by the
same token, your power within it is enormous. The power to subvert, to sap belief in this thing that doesn’t work, the courage to refuse this despicable thing, and to start right now, when you’re alone, when it doesn’t look easy. Only the mass exodus of what we once called the drop-outs is going to derail the US monster. There is no business as usual. Every crime is unbearably singular. None of them can be justified. Your power is to broadcast this, to narrowcast it, to use your fabulous American Imperial subjectivity – even you Danish lot, and all the others – to reach out from New York and the rest of the hell holes to people who are struggling against the great odds that are stacked in the favor of the American monster. We in the Imerial centers underestimate what this reaching out means to people all over the world. But we also underestimate what it means to ourselves, to our own self-esteem, our pitiful ability to look in the mirror.

Around the world our brothers and sisters are dying. It’s just literal. Take some time to find out how everyone, everywhere, in every country lives, including the people next door. It’s the least you can do and it’s nowhere near enough. The last five years of struggle leave me full of optimism and rage. I want to celebrate all the everyday heroes who are doing something about this disaster. These are not ordinary times, no one knows what will happen. Vast forces are coursing through the planet that we live on. It would be foolish to make the slightest prediction about what the future really holds. Hoping for anything particular is a decision I leave up to you. Great respect to those who make a difference for the better.