McKenzie Wark on Tue, 30 Dec 1997 02:45:14 +0100 (MET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Deleuze Contra Barbrook

Rethinking Social Democracy
McKenzie Wark

Some thoughts on Deleuze and social democracy prompted
by the very interesting debate between Richard
Barbrook and 'Luther Blisset' -- in which I will try
to make some productive use of both but draw a 
diagonal line across them. That line falls mainly
to Richard's side, altough it may not appear so. In
any case, this may just be because culturally I'm
probably a lot closer to Richard than to anybody who
might use the 'Luther' proper name as a place from
which to speak. We underestimate the difficulties
of these cultural differences in this, the 'last
international' that is nettime. My apologies to
Eastern European readers who may find some of this
language distasteful, but be assured that my aim
is to free western social democracy from its 
unacknowledged authoritarianism -- something that
friends in the east see more clearly than many of us
in the west.


'Those who are my followers are not my followers', as
Zarathustra says, in a line Deleuze quotes. It seems
singularly futile to try to claim that there is some
necessary 'virus' that passes from Deleuze to his
followers. Anyone who apes the vocabulary and style of
this thinker betrays him in that moment of homage. Only
that which differs from it can be thought of as honouring

It also seems to me to be inappropriate to to see a very
restricted adoption of some Deleuzian themes in England
as somehow central expressions of of a Deleuzian legacy.
I see very little common ground between the English, 
American, Canadian and Australian expressions of Deleuzian
thought in English, ahd quite frankly, the English stuff
is not necessarily the most interesting. There is a much
more diverse and distributed network of work that you
would imagine from Richard's presentation, which is strikingly

There is also a lack of appreciation of the differences in
local conditions. The idea of a 'regulation school' social
democratic strategy for Italy seems to me totally surreal.
The Italian state seems to me to be so radically different
from the French (or British) state form that it just isn't
appropriate to criticise a strategy meant to work in one
context in terms of one meant for quite another. 

If we needed a reminder of the limits of 'dialectical thinking',
then it lies in this insistance that we can only think of
one strategy as if it were the negation of another. Either
social democracy or vanguardism, or molecularity. Always 'either /
or', never 'and - also'. Richard makes his argument in the
old schismatic language of the worker's movement. This is the
paradox of it: a popular front strategy of inclusion made in
the language of the old vanguardist rhetoric of exclusion. My
sympathies lie to a large extent with the strategy, but not
with the rhetoric.

Its not a question of either / or. Mass strategies for social
democracy, if they are actually going to work from the bottom
up, require that we find ways of phrasing the link between all
kinds of local and particular struggles. I don't think its consistent
with Deleuze's conceptual work to view the political relation
of the 'molar' to the 'molecular' as a relation of either /or. 
Its not a dialectic. The molecular passes through the molar,
which is always composed out of a part of the molecular. Its a
binding together of some part of the molecular, creating a distiction
between an inside and an outside (an either / or). But the point is
that there is something more fundametal that these polarised
divisions of the political sphere. The flux of possible relations,
possible local and contingent phrasings and communications, out
of which the molar constructs its grand opositions.

This is where Deleuze does break decisively with an 'Hegelian'
mindset. It is not the dialectic of confronting the other that
determines my boundaries and brings me (us) into being. There is
something prior to that operation, which for Deleuze is secondary.
It is not the opposition of the other that marks my difference.
Difference is primary, originary, self-differentiating. Or to
translate this back into mass movement politics -- it is not the
large-scale formation of political majorities that determines
the small-scale adherence of particular constituences to those
majorities. It is the other way around. It is out of the self-
organising activities of the molecular politics of difference that
the possibilities of majoritarian politics for a mass movement
arises in the first place.

I think the history of social democracy bears this out. Social
democratic majorities at the national political level are a late
expression of a political desire that grows from the grass roots
level, from the self-organisation of the working class and other
minoritarian groups, who begin to self-organise, self-educate and
self-determine. You can see this in the history of german social
democracy, in the cycling and singing clubs that were the earliest
expression of social democratic organisation in its illegal period.
(I wrote about this already in Virtual Geography, Indiana UP, 1994).
Cycling and singing are interesting choices for social democratic
self-organisation: apparently apolitical and innocuous to the
police, but great media for organising in space(cycling) and in
time (singing).

I agree with Richard that vanguardism was (in most contexts, in most
times) a mistake, a deformation of the movement. I would have sided
with the social democrats, not the spartakists, with the mensheviks,
not the bolsheviks. But on this understanding that genuine social
democracy is a grass roots self-organising movement, a voluntary
coalescence of minorities into an approrpiate form for taking
power in a democratic state. But having lived my entire life in
a democratic state, indeed, in one of the world's oldest continuous
democracies, I really don't think its approriate to say much about
how politics might proceed elsewhere. I would not like to rule out
vanguardism in contexts where the state is corrupt or excessively

But it strikes me that Richard's break with Leninism is only partial.
This hankering for an Hegelian dialectic is a vestage of Leninist
thought. I think Deleuze was quite right to oppose it, and has contributed
a great deal to tracing its geneaology back to Plato and Platonism. 
I've never accepted this Hegelian reading of Marx, which only accounts
for part of his work. It was a geneaology for Marxism that that leftist
opposition of the 30s used to oppose the positivism of Soviet dogma.
But with the collapse of the latter, perhaps it has outlived its
usefulness, and in any case was still to bound up with the legacy it
sought to oppose. 

>From Plato to Hegel, thought is shadowed by the dream of a shadow-state,
a dream-state, of which the thinker appoints himself a minister-in-
waiting. The opposition of philosophy to present-day tyranny is only
partial, and made in the name of a state to come, which, no matter how
benevolent its promises, is one that installs thinking as its adminis-
trative wing. This can just as easily be an opposition to this present
day state in the name of a future state of the elite, or a future state
to be administered in the *name* of the people (by the the elite). 
But it amounts to the same thing. 

This is an image of thought that social democracy needs to shake off, if
the second of its two terms is to be taken as seriously as the first.
Social democracy is not always a genuinely democratic thought, or for
that matter practice. It has to let go of the dream of administering
a perfected state *in the name of* the people, in order to deliver
equality. The critique of administrative rationality has be seen to
apply not just to the failed utopias of Stalinism, but also the more
modest programs of social democracy, which have not freed themselves
from authoritarian thinking, but have merely watered it down.

Deleuze and Guattari write in their essay on Fitzgerald of the three
lines: the boundary line which defines a molar aggegate, or a territory.
The line of flight along which the molecular might flee from such
territories, might, as it were, deterritorialise. But there is also
a third line, a 'subtle line', which is neither. Deleuze is fond
of the image of a 'diagonal line' that one might draw across whatever
polarised opposition reigns, and I think the subtle line or crack
is just such an attempt, within his own thought, to stop it polarising
into an either / or. Richard is quite right to be critical of the
apparently deleuzian opposition of a molecular politics of minority
to a molar one of majority, but I don't think Deleuze wanted to shut
the door to another way of drawing a line through social/political 

To find another way of thinking politics with Deleuze, we can go back
to his first book, on David Hume. This is a book that predates his
involvement with the politics of 'May 68' and his association with
Guattari, and that is not the least of its charms for those of us
who don't feel any nostalgia for the aborted project of '68' -- or
for that matter, of '77'.

I write about Hume in mysecond book, The Virtual Republic (Allen &
Unwin, 1997) so I won't go into it here. Its usefulness is that
Deleuze uses it to get out of the Hobbesian notion of the state as
a necessary evil, as a *limit* at the margins to the free enterprise
of individuals. Deleuze mentions this alternative in passing, but
it is clearly one that has more currency today, and more currency in
the English speaking world, than a French philosopher writing in
the 50s could possibliy imagine. In short -- Deleuze is interested
in an alternative to what will become the 'California Ideology', not
to mention the basis of all forms of neo-liberalism. All of these
claim roots in the (mostly unread) writings of Hume's friend Adam
Smith, but really owe more to a Hobbesian notion of the state than
to the productive and creative development of institutions that was
the actual view of both Hume and Smith.

For Hume, rather than think of the state as a limit to the free action
of individuals, why not think of it as a productive rephrasing of
those powers and desires in ways that produce a collective good? Rather
than a necessary limit, why not a productive and creative *extension*
of the space of liberty? Rather than think of abstract human individuals
as existing in as pure atoms, why not think instead of the actual clumps
and packs in which people actually live their lives? These, Hume notes,
are not characterised by the war of all against all that is thought
to prevail in a purse state of individualism. Rather, we find that within
any self-organising human group, the group is bound together by feelings
of what Hume calls *sympathy*. The role of an institution is not to
limit the competition of indivuduals, but to *extend* the *sympathy* one
might feel for an immediate group to a more abstract social collectivity.

It should be clear by now why I think this is an interesting line of
thought for social democracy, and why I think there is a 'social democratic'
Deleuze. There is of course a social democratic Hume, or rather, there
is a continuity between Hume's thought and contemporary social democracy
in the English speaking world. We English speakers tend to feel inferior
to the grand theorising of the German idealist or the French rationalist
traditions, but frankly, the practical and applied results of what I
would call an open or creative empiricism have hardly been inferior to
its European alternatives. It is certainly a good inocculation against the
temptations of fascism. 

Deleuze found in Hume an image of thought that creates concepts from 
perceptions, from the ground up, rather than ordering perceptions 
hierarchically, from the top down, with concepts deduced a priori. There
is the thought that wants to master the world, and the thought that wants
to cope with it. There is the thought that seeks a pure space purged of
unruly difference, and there is the thought that sees unruly difference
itself as the prior ground that not only proceeds thought, but
permeates it. 

Which is to suggest that the true geneaology of social democracy has yet
to be written. It certainly does not run back to the French revolution,
which to me belongs more to the history of authoritarianism, at least
as far the official histories of it go. 

Like a lot of Australians, I was thrilled by Tony Blair's victory, and
am not so cynical as to think that a change of government is meaningless.
But to an Australian, its all a bit been-there-done-that. We had this
brand of modernised social democracy from 1983 to 1996, and know a thing
or two about its limitations. (And of course a lot of Australian Labour
Party hacks who lost their jobs when we lost power in 1996 ended up
working in Britain as footsoldiers in the new style Labour media machine).
In the current environment, global capital can see a lot of benefit
in negotiated modernisation via a social democratic government compared
to modernisation through conflict with a conservative one. The difference
is not negligible in terms of its results for ordinary people either.
But there are limits to just how much of the pain of economic rationalisation
can be shared out equitably, and the dream of restoring merrie olde
englande to a powerful position in the global economy is clearly an
imperial fantasy that dies hard. In the long run, social democracy has
to institute a new range of desires, combine new forces, fascilitate
the self organisation of new collectivities, for the dream of restoring
full employment, cosy work practices and stable incomes is really not
terribly realistic when *even after the crash* a place like South Korea
has higher levels of productivity, skill formation, capital investment
in the production process -- indeed, where overinvestment in productive
as well as nonproductive assets is the cause of the crisis. And of
course since the devaluations Asian products are very competitively priced.

In short, a social democracy that promises that if you hand over your
autonomy you will get secure work, rising levels of consumption and free
time back in exchange is not viable in a global economy, and will
instead be more a matter of offering equitably shared declines in all
of the above. But frankly, that image of social democracy as a molar
politics grew from the ground up out of self-organising grass roots
structures that are now in decline. Attempts to imposes them from the
top down may wax and wane in electoral appeal, but don't really articulate
a relation between the molar and molecular states of political aggregation
that are contemporary. Labor in Australia actually delivered as much as
could be expected on that traditional social democratic agenda, and it
worked for a while. We won four elections running for the first time ever.
But when managed and equitable industrial decline ran out of steam, boy
were we punihsed by the electorate for failing to deliver on, for
failing to even hear, the new forms of grass roots self organisation.

So, to sum up: social democracy requires a rephrasing of the connection
between the molecular and the molar. It is not the opposition of one
strategy to the other. It requires a rethinking of the image of thought
and its relation to power, and a more thorough critique of the authoritarian
conception of praxis. The geneaology of this praxis does not lie in
the tradition of administrative rationality, but rather in a pragmatics
of empirical experimentation. This is a genuine alternative to
neo-liberalism, whether in its 'cyber' incarnation or not. The idea of 
a plurality of institutions, including the market, that extend particular
powers and desires beyond the local, is already present in Scottish
Enlightenment, aless authoritarian part of that inheritance and either
its German or its French rivals -- not least because these enlightened
Scots had already abandoned the fantasy of the pure state, of which
they might be the vanguard. 

"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: