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RE: <nettime>the myth of democracy and reactivism
Kermit Snelson on Sun, 28 Oct 2001 04:38:23 +0100 (CET)


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RE: <nettime>the myth of democracy and reactivism


> The suggestion that some kind of society that can naturally
> evolve outside of the nation-state schema, that would be a
> "society in which we wish to live" simply by _not_ being a
> nation-state, this simple state-denial, embodies an even
> greater idealism than the ideal of democracy. This particular
> anti-state brand of idealism seems to carry with it all the
> problems of right-wing born again Christian idealism, or even
> neo-liberal free market idealism, for me to feel comfortable
> with it.

This is a profound observation.  It may, in fact, be the key to
understanding the September 11 attacks and their possible effect on the
future of activism.

The term "democracy" has been around since the fifth century BC.  So as a
concept, or "myth", it far predates Christianity, the nation-state and
especially capitalism.  And no, democracy hasn't always been the exclusive
propaganda weapon of capitalism.  Remember the German Democratic Republic?

Of course, "democracy" meant different things to Pericles, Jefferson, JFK
and Walter Ulbricht.  But the main idea remains the same:  that the many
should rule instead of the few, or the one.  Battles have been fought to
redefine "many" or "rule", but the definition itself has remained
non-negotiable.  If you believe that the many should rule instead of the
few, then you are a democrat.  If you do not, then look for possible
soulmates under "monarchy" or "aristocracy."  There are certainly other
choices.

Centuries of political theory and experience have established that
democracy has three natural enemies:  mob rule, empire and war.  And these
three are not unrelated.  In fact, they usually work as one insidious
system through which democracies are destroyed, just as Athens was
destroyed by the Peloponnesian War.  The same thing is probably happening
to us right now. And today's "anti-state brand of idealism", allied with
neo-liberalism and worse, is riding all three of these to yet another
Spartan victory.

It apparently did not occur to anybody until the modern industrial period
to come up with a theoretical justification for mob rule.  According to
this argument, the "many" are the actual engine of economic production.  
As such, their economic and political activity can establish a political
order autonomously from any institution, much less government.  
Therefore, any government is superfluous and parasitic, established to
enrich the few by the labors of the many through a legal monopoly on
confiscation by physical force.  For a popular exposition of this
argument, I'd recommend either Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" or Hardt and
Negri's "Empire", depending on the style of hectoring you prefer.  For a
less popular but more intellectually rigorous treatment, read Georges
Sorel's 1908 masterpiece "Reflections on Violence," a major influence on
Mussolini and probably the angriest attack on democracy and the
nation-state ever written.

Empire is, of course, the subjection of entire nations to external rule.  
It is antithetical to the principle of national sovereignty.  And such a
destruction of the nation-state is a development that Negri welcomes.  
Much of his book is dedicated to a rather technical discussion of the
legal theory of transnational sovereignty, including that which led to the
UN. But his main model for a legal World Order is not the UN but a
"deterritorialized" version of the US Constitution.  And although his book
contains nearly sixty pages of footnotes, he does not cite a single one of
the legal scholars or their patrons in the United States who have been
working on precisely that idea for over fifty years.  Probably because
they are exactly the same people who founded NATO, and who are leading the
charge of neo-liberal globalism today.  Given the target market for his
book, acknowledging them as the inspiration for his argument would
probably hurt sales.  (I suppose he was justified in feeling safe to cite
with approval Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss, even though the first was a
leading theoretician for the Third Reich and the second was the teacher of
Allan Bloom and many other icons of the modern American right.)

But isn't the point of Negri's book to show how Empire may be resisted?
This is where we get into the kinship between the "anti-state brand of
idealism" and religious fundamentalism, and where we discover that his
opposition to democracy extends not only to support for mob rule and
empire, but democracy's third natural enemy:  war.

Negri is obscure about a lot of things, but he makes it very clear that,
like Sorel a century ago, he bases his strategy for resistance on the
development of early Christianity and its conquest of the Roman Empire.
After all, perhaps the single most influential legal case of all time
involved an application of Roman imperial law to one of its provincial
jurisdictions; namely, between an imperial Roman court and the Jewish
Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.  But there is a more important parallel between
what Negri considers to be the history of ancient Rome and what he
considers to be our situation today:  namely, that neither Empire
successfully incorporated its proletariat.  In both the Roman Empire and
in ours, there is a residue, part slave and part free, that has no status,
no legitimacy, no part in Empire.  And as this unconquered, unpacified,
un-politicized power finally disrupted the entire legal structure of Rome
and caused it to fall, so will this class be the means for the fight
against the Empire of today.

So early Christianity is the model for today's resistance on behalf of the
world's oppressed, a new Children's Crusade that has written in blood an
"Acts of the Martyrs" for our time on the ancient streets of Genoa.  What
is most frightening about this reasoning is not its messianism, not its
ecstatic invocation of St. Augustine's "City of God", that blueprint for
the theocracy of the Middle Ages, nor its glorification of poverty (in the
person of St. Francis of Assisi at the end of the book), but his
attribution (again following Sorel, whom he is apparently ashamed to cite)
of the ultimate moral value and ontological status of acts of purifying
violence and "just war" against metaphysical corruption.  "Just war", he
says on page 13, has become "an activity that is justified in itself ...
The resurrection of the concept of just war may be only a symptom of the
emergence of Empire, but what a suggestive and powerful one!"  And on page
21, he concludes with a chilling analogy between the "birth of
Christianity in Europe and its expansion during the decline of the Roman
Empire" and a new basis for "theory and practice" based on "an ontological
basis of antagonism--within Empire, but also against and beyond Empire, at
the same level of totality."

I am aware, of course, that most activists couldn't care less about Negri.
The problem is that the mass media marketing machine (Time, Newsweek, The
New York Times, London Review of Books, The New Republic, etc.) has
ensured that such ideas have sold well and are widely accepted among
activists, even if not fully understood.  And as a result,
well-intentioned people are likely to be misled and neutralized until
historical events shame them.  The past is full of similar cases.  
Eugenics, for instance, was once perfectly respectable in countries such
as the United States and Great Britain. Membership in a Eugenics Society
was considered the ultimate sign of a progressive intellectual.  It was
considered a humanitarian application of modern scientific methods to ease
human suffering.  And then Hitler came along and lent some clarity as to
what such ideas really amount to.

Now, somebody very much like Hitler has come along again.  And suddenly,
breaking windows at a downtown Starbucks doesn't look so good.  And a
popular, imprisoned guru in Italy who writes about martyrs and saints and
the purifying effect of violence in the name of the world's dispossessed
against a corrupt, worldly empire is starting to sound a lot like a
certain millionaire caveman in Afghanistan.

So where does that leave activism today?  I think what needs to change is
to realize that things haven't changed that much.  Social change, like a
viable business, can't spontaneously result from recent developments in
network technology.  It still takes hard work, organization and a respect
for the evidence of reality and the ability to reason rigorously from it.  
Most of the issues that have been raised on the streets over the past two
years are technical and will require scientific expertise to solve.  
Global warming? Sustainable agriculture in the developing world?  Debt
relief?  Drug patents?  These are all problems that require considerable
technical expertise to solve.  Waving signs, chanting slogans and throwing
rocks won't do a thing.  Those who really care about these issues should
pick one, develop real knowledge about it and become valuable to one of
the many organizations that are actually working on it.

If the goal is to overthrow capitalism, then I'd suggest studying the
example of someone who managed to do it.  Lenin, for instance.  In the
twenty or so years of political activity that led up to the October
Revolution, he also came across people who argued that participating in
democratic electoral politics was a waste of time.  He disagreed, and
wrote a book about them.  He called it "Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile
Disorder."  If there's anything worth studying in Lenin's written work
today, it is his documentation of how to build a successful revolution.
Amazingly enough, he discovered that doing so requires the very opposite
of a decentralized, deterritorialized network that "autonomously" creates
a politics of "deploying myths against symbols."  Instead, it requires a
highly centralized, cadre-based organization of hard-nosed materialists.
Atoms, not bits.  It wasn't accidental that Marx's very first serious
writing, his doctoral dissertation, was on the ancient Greek atomists.

It is very important that today's activists stop applying to politics the
same kind of "myth over matter" thinking that has failed so spectacularly
in the Internet business.  It's one thing to see the NASDAQ collapse, but
quite another to see the World Trade Center do so.  Atoms are much more
important than bits.  Our enemies aren't just "deploying myths against
symbols."  They are also deploying 767s and anthrax against our families
and neighbors. Things have gotten very real, and so should we.

Kermit Snelson





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