Monday, September 05, 2011

In the Eye of the Storm, Part II: “Not Being Governed Like This”

Bernard E. Harcourt

Thanks to Frank Pasquale for pushing the conversation in such interesting directions. What we need to theorize, I take it, is the emerging wellspring of organized, but chaotic, a-political, but political, violence-resistance-delinquency that is too easily dismissed today as hooliganism, but is obviously deeply political in nature and, I believe, tells us something important about our current political environment. We need to theorize it deeply, with the kind of subtlety that someone like E.P. Thompson exhibited in his analyses of the moral economy of the English crowd and 18th century food riots. You may recall, Thompson revealed the political nature of the food riots as resistance to economic liberalization in part by showing that the riots couldn’t merely have been about hunger, nor crime, nor chaos, because the rioters were targeting the very means of production of bread—the mills. We need to understand these emerging forms of protest in a similarly nuanced way.

Let me start, though, by pointing to five additional pieces to the puzzle that I neglected to put on the table last time. First, Frank Pasquale and Umair Haque brilliantly expose the ideological underbelly of our “post-ideological age.” As Pasquale writes, “finance and government elites have positioned themselves to gain from whatever risks they shift onto society at large, via bailouts, emergency powers, and the revolving door.” There is, without doubt, a double standard. In Haque’s penetrating words, discussing the London riots: “Blow up the financial system? Here's a state-subsidized bonus. Steal a video game? You're toast.”

Over at, Jon Stokes has brought to my attention two other important developments that are deeply connected to this wellspring of “hell raising” that need to be theorized as well. First, the hacker group “Anonymous,” which Stokes refers to as “a perfect example of the kind of post-ideological hell-raising expressed in the London riots” and discussed in Ars Technica's coverage of the hacker collective; and second, Wikileaks and Julian Assange, who, according to some, such as Bruce Sterling, are more about raising hell than political ideology. We need to include these developments in our theorizing about the London riots.

Third, Al Jazeera points out perhaps the greatest weakness in Slavoj Zizek’s argument in “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” namely his prejudiced (in the exact meaning of that term—pre-judged) reading of the Arab Spring. There is really no reason to prejudge the political outcomes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, etc. “’The end of revolution?’” Al Jazeera asks. “So early? So early in the game and so utterly has the European philosopher lost all hope.” Those revolts were ideologically driven and we simply cannot yet say what they will give birth to—regardless of the Iranian experience.

Fourth, Brent Staples, in his fascinating review of Randy Kennedy’s new book, reveals how the notion of "post-racial" must be related to the idea of the "post-ideological"—and also revealingly shows, in his penetrating discussion of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright episode, how so many (African)-Americans could easily come to reject “the ‘secular scripture’ of fundamental American goodness.” This too is an important piece of the puzzle.

Fifth and last for now—but there are more, I am sure—Daragh Grant, always brilliant (and on the political science teaching market this year), has pointed me to the intriguing parallel between the London riots and PM David Cameron’s youthful membership in the notorious Bullingdon Club at Oxford University. I live on a university campus with frat houses—and of course, we have had our own president who was a former member of the Skull and Bones society—so, yes, of course, one has to compare the youthful indiscretions of our elites with the violence of young people. The Prime Minister insisted: “We all do stupid things when we are young and we should learn the lessons.” Some people get to learn those lessons in different ways than others.

So that’s a lot to put on the table—perhaps enough for one post itself. I will continue to theorize next time. But let me just begin to sketch a direction tonight.

I’d argue that we are by no means in a “post-ideological” age. Listen to Texas Governor Perry and you’ll see that ideology, in its strongest sense, lives on. What is missing—and this is why Zizek would experience the political moment as "post-ideological"—is a robust, organized, militancy on the far Left—the Maoists, Leninists, Trotskyists, etc., of the 1960s. That form of political militancy has vaporized. Alain Badiou, Zizek’s intellectual running partner, was a Maoist, as were many in the European Left in the 60s—great recent book by Richard Wolin here. In this country, there were cells like the Black Panthers—it’s those kind of leftist political organization that no longer play a role, such that a London riot can no longer be “claimed” by any revolutionary movement—or (as it so often happened, falsely) be “attributed” to a political extremist group. There is just no critical mass of far Left political ideology left to stamp meaning on the London riots.

But it does not mean we are in a “post-ideological” age. [A lot will turn on the definition of ideology here. Raymond Geuss offers the best multiple definitions of the term in The Idea of a Critical Theory—I am simply using the term here to mean a political program that is deduced from a set of political ideas].

Instead, what I see in the London riots, in the Paris banlieus, even in the flash mobs and elsewhere, is a common critical reaction best captured, as Michel Foucault suggested, by the impulse to “not be governed like this.” It is a virulent rejection of the forms of governance that feel so oppressive. That is the common thread: resistance against the form of being governed—a thread that I discuss in this essay on radical thought, "Radical Thought from Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, Through Foucault, to the Present". But there is a unique temporality to this critical impulse today. It is unique because of the collapse of so many utopian visions. The utopian dystopias of the twentieth century have fundamentally restructured the realm of political possibilities today.

According to, there is a post on the open-posting site AnonNews: "We laugh in the face of tragedy, we mock those in pain, we ruin the lives of other people simply because we can, these things we do for the lolz and we do them with no remorse, no caring, no love, and no sense of morality, we attack all things in this way, we can, we will, and we have destroyed countless that stand to harm Anonymous." This reminds me of other forms of political resistance that I have explored here. I called it back then a “politics of spleen”—drawing on Baudelairean and 19th century bohemian resistance to bourgeois society as the paradigm of a certain form of resistant--also reflected in the 1990s in radical queer politics in this country. For instance in this 1991 editorial by Johnny Noxema and Rex Boy, the editors of the Toronto zine BIMBOX: "You are entering a gay and lesbian-free zone. . . . BIMBOX hereby renounces its past use of the term lesbian and/or gay in a positive manner. This is a civil war against the ultimate evil, and consequently we must identify us and them in no uncertain terms. . . . So, dear lesbian woman or gay man to whom perhaps BIMBOX has been inappropriately posted . . . prepare to pay dearly for the way you and your kind have f**ked things up.” There's an echo, an echo that can be heard today in so many forms of "apolitical" resistance or violence.

I like Frank Pasquale’s last sentence: “to develop a Mt. Pelerin Society for those who actually believe there is such a thing as society.” Intriguing... To be sure, ideological movements are not born by themselves. They never have been. They are created. Deliberately. With funding and foresight. They are made.

More to come...

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