Kaepernick’s Protest Goes Right to the Heart of American Nationalism

At first glance, meaning a week of media uproar, I dismissed Colin Kaepernick’s mild protest of standing up for the singing of the national anthem as unimportant. The patriotic among us would denounce his disrespect of the flag, the agitators and progressive among us would back him up for his right to protest, and the whole thing would blow over. It may well eventually do just that, but the issue had a stickiness to it that lingered on longer than I had expected. Perhaps I am just to close to the center of the discussion in the California Bay Area, perhaps the mainstream media was attracted to a heated debate about a patriotic symbol (the patriotic symbol?) during the lead up to the 2016 election, perhaps forcing the talking heads of the sports commentators to make a statement on the issue fueled the fire for longer (considering how much football Americans watch), but perhaps this simple refusal to stand was a brilliant move to catalyze a movement to change America to its core. Just maybe this simple act of of protest cuts through the sort of media hype that seizes on a hot-button issue like a pack of ravenous wolves and has nestled its way into the heart of the national consciousness.

After a blithe facebook post in which I do as I usually do and point out bias in the mainstream media and try to convince my friends to stop paying attention (and we do pay for our attention with ads, lost etiquette in our personal arguments, etc.), I was surprised to find replies from people I know that suggested that they had taken deep offense. How could the simple non-gesture of remaining seated provoke such outrage? It shouldn’t have been so shocking though, and I had a bit of an epiphany followed by a face-palm because I had just gotten through a book on Nationalism by Benedict Anderson called Imagined Communities.

When you publicly disrespect the flag, a great number of people are going to react angrily because nations are the basic unit of the people in powerful… nations around the world. I find it difficult to type without conflating the nation of America and the people of the USA. After all, the preamble to the constitution of the United States of America begins with “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union…”, with the assignees claiming to literally be the people. They signed as the people not yet formed until that act of constitutional adoption passed, which they authored. Their authority to speak as the people and at once form the people is a kind of simultaneous enactment that typifies the logic of nationalism: the people and the nation are one, a unity. The people of America are the nation and they are represented by the government, just as any other nations claim to represent their people in sometimes different, non-republican ways (I could also say countries but who makes a clear distinction between the two anymore?).

Regardless of whether the reader is a devout nationalist or not, the nation has become the organizational unit of politics and we are all subjects of the nation. The force of its symbols and rhetoric are the dominant forces on the planet. The ideological spectrum is largely set within the national discussion and that discussion is a rather singular one that situates the beliefs of its subjects within that spectrum; even if one attempts to take one’s beliefs outside of that spectrum, they will find a place for it and slap an ‘-ism’ on it. In law one has certain rights and privileges as a ‘national citizen’ and to become a stateless person is to understand the gravity of these commitments. As a mark of attachment and as a mode of self-identification, the nation and its citizens reigns supreme.

A nation has a number of defining characteristics and clearly differs from the feudal states of the medieval period, but the flag its single is most unifying symbol. These simply designed rectangles that wave in the wind hold a symbolic power: the power and respect of the nation. To disrespect that symbol is to bring down a disgrace upon the nation in the eyes of a great deal of nationals because that symbol is equated with the nation as a whole. The flag of a nation signifies the most basic belief of a contemporary body politic. That belief has been understood and deployed as a method of mass persuasion in a number of ways and at various key junctures in history. Most people stand and give respect to the symbols of the nation as a force of habit, with a few loudly defending their sanctity and a few others willing to burn them in disgust – the zealous outliers. One way or another, national symbols are an entry point into a conversation that has the farthest reaches and to maneuver oneself in relation to those symbols in word and deed produces some of the greatest impact. That there is a “national discussion” so easily referred to and which so many public figures feel compelled to speak within indicates the influence such words and deeds have. It is one of the hallmarks of nations that there be newsprint conducted in a single language that people can potentially follow and participate in: a current national discussion.

When Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the singing of the national anthem, the response from the patriots was that he should not disrespect the flag and all that it stands for. Without yet going into the content of what the flag stands for (i.e. enumerating what a nation is and is not) it is worth pointing out that the flag is revered sanctified by what it represents not for the bare symbol waving all by itself. The flag is the supreme national symbol, it is the medium through which we know that other people who we cannot quite see or know in their personal distinction, people we will probably never talk to, will still feel unified with us and we them. The flag is the device that bridges the gulf of anonymity between people who still have the same political status as a citizen, a shared connection to the territory and the institutions therein. By showing disrespect during the star-spangled banner, Kaepernick can be seen as severing that bond of national attachment by sitting while almost everyone else is standing – a decision with such small physical stakes yet provoking such a strong reaction that it attests to the power of the symbol. The public perception is that everyone else is watching the same flag, having the same feelings, posing in the same fashion, and generally united in thought and action regarding the national symbol.

The sentiments evoked by participants with this scene can be quite overwhelming, and it is no accident that national symbols accompany mass events with the numbers of people present reaching heights vastly exceeding in everyday life. The power and force of a massive crowd is immediately apparent to anyone within one, with an individual’s sense of physical and mental autonomy challenged by the common sights, sounds, smells, arrangement of the locale, and often collective movements that sweep one up into them. All of these forces come into play in the instilling of a national consciousness through national symbols and ceremony that, if conducted properly, can reinforce the beliefs that come along with it. The belief in the nation are what the individual carries along with them after the event is over and reenter the stream of daily life; the power of nationalism is most visibly and affectively pronounced in the symbolic crowd control of these mass events. Taking on that stage and publicly breaking the norm of the crowd is actually one of the most potent forms of protest and so is a rather brilliant. Add to that the historical high of professional sports watching, media involvement with social media apps, and a chatty commentator class that loves an angry debate and you’ve got a perfect storm.

Once you see (if only for a moment) that national symbols are a kind of crowd control writ large and internalized by a critical threshold of people, withdrawing one’s involvement in its ritual of allegiance has a way of forcing people on a very wide spectrum to ask some fundamental questions. If the flag is thought to be unconditionally respected and never questioned, as some will inevitably be led to believe, then the content of the nation and the condition of the people of the nation is irrelevant. The people could suffer to the point of utter destitution and total exhaustion, the infrastructure could be in collapse, and the constitution could be blatantly ignored by those wielding the most power but the flag and would still demand respect. This is of course absurd. In a nation that contradicts its own fundamental tenets and does not allow its people to make decisions of any political significance, allegiance to the flag would take on the form of a totalitarian rule that would maintain the obedience of the masses while shoring up the power of the rulers. The content that the flag stands in for would become irrelevant and the symbol itself would be reduced an empty shell of dogmatic adherence. This is a logical extreme but the arguments coming out against Kaepernick’s protest have nothing to do with the content of his grievances, nor does anyone try to maintain a position that he shouldn’t be allowed to protest peacefully (freedom of speech being the single most important bit of content in the nation); the very persistent, loud, and often angry criticism is directed at his method, the effect it has on the political landscape/national psyche, and respect. Nobody would say that he doesn’t have the right to protest or that there aren’t legitimate concerns that he is voicing, the debate is about form, respect, and etiquette. In other words, people’s feelings are hurt and they don’t want the distress and injustice wrought within the nation to spread to its form in the flag. The image of the flag demands to be clean and virtuous, even when the real people are suffering or the nation’s ideals are not being realized.

It is within this dark gap between the content and the form, between the real situation people are living through and the image of the nation’s symbols, that Kaepernick’s protest tactic shines out. Nobody can deny that his tactic is unsound or illegitimate but he is denounced anyway, nobody can deny that he is expressing grievances adequately but he is denounced anyway, nobody can get him to stop and go back to conformity with ceremonial behavior but he is denounced anyway. The reactive patriots are caught in a bind. As a symbolic protest, it is a perfect place to occupy because it reveals the content-less and purely emotional arguments coming from the other side. He is inducing everyone to either react in a blind rage for witnessing such disrespect or reflect on whether the nation’s ideals are actually being met when looking at the symbol. If the symbol is never to be disrespected, then there is nothing to stop the slippery slope down to totalitarianism. If the symbol is open to criticism, then American symbols will now at least partially invoke the injustice and lack of freedom it tries to cover up – with all of those crowd sentiments and increased media activity coming along for the ride.

On the other hand, it became easy to understand why people were shocked and worried by the action when it began to spread. When the national symbol is openly flaunted, with more and more people choosing to not participate in the ceremony or do so in a dissenting manner, the feeling of unification dies down – the spell is broken. That fall-back level of collective belief and those tingly feelings one gets in a unified crowd (especially as a child) suddenly feel under attack. Aside from the individual affects that are threatened, the level of commitment and confidence people have in the nation to exert its influence on other nations diminishes. When one’s house is not in order, in becomes vulnerable to external threat. The planet being governed largely by nations as the basic subjects of action and international bodies composed of them, to see a tear in the fabric of the nation and those bonds loosened will project a weakening nation. So Kaepernick’s protest has ripple effects that are predictable and he feels that those effects are worth risking for the sake of his grievances within the nation.

The whole episode has the makings of a tragic-comedy, where the actions of the dissenting commentators are only making matters worse. The more the issue is discussed, the more Kaepernick and protesters who feel his way will gain, due to the purely emotional nature of the reaction. It is the American love an on-screen feud that keeps this thing going; the more the public hears about Colin Kaepernick not standing up for the national anthem, the more patriotism will take a hit. Should the division create a clean split and set even more people on the path of reactionary patriotism, it would be another case of the mainstream media fomenting reactionary nationalism on empty ideological grounds. One need only mention the billions of dollars worth of free advertising space that the large corporate media stations gave to Donald Trump in the presidential primary races to see how that works. They determine the spectrum of ideological positions to be had within the nation and guard the boundaries of what counts for mainstream positions, reaching the broad national audience that they do. If they would stop talking about it, then it would stop riling-up people into unquestioning patriotism. The sooner staged conversation rooms in front of the camera stop talking about Colin Kaepernick, the less angry people will become about him – regardless of what anyone believes about the rightness of his actions.

But the statement that Kaepernick is making is consciously striking for a division within the nation for his own reasons. The reaction on the extreme patriotic side is predictable, his gesture is relatively small, and the media is stoking the flames – yes, these are all factors in the episode. But his reasons for protesting are justifiable and the national divisions which he supposedly kicked-off are already latent. Athletes have been coming up with ways to support Black Lives Matter activists and actions against unpunished police murders for a few years now and have done so with some success. Nothing strikes a cord like disrespecting the premier national symbol in a very large crowd as a star-athlete (he is a star athlete and shouldn’t be on the bench right now, but I’ll save that rant for the end. I am a 49ers fan after all) though: he is on the “national stage.”

When policemen are repeatedly shown on video to kill black men without any good reason and are allowed to go free, something is wrong on a national level. When policemen get paid leave after using their firearms to kill the citizens they are supposedly protecting and one factors in the long and thick history of racism in America, one is left feeling like justice is two-tiered. And it isn’t even solely a racial issue when you broaden the scope: the financial sector routinely gets away with crime and reaps huge salary rewards for it, broke cities have local governments fleecing their citizens with all sorts of fees to stay afloat, and Kaepernick’s own words are good enough for the presidential election:

“I think the two presidential candidates that we currently have also represent the issues that we have in this country right now. You have Hillary who’s called black teens or black kids super predators. You have Donald Trump who is openly racist. We have a presidential candidate who deleted emails and done things illegally and is a presidential candidate. That doesn’t make sense to me. Because if that was any other person, you’d be in prison. So what is this country really standing for?”

So what we have is a nation that is already fractured between its rich and its poor, between the people thrown out of their houses to pay for the mistakes that mega-banks brought down the economy with, between a poor people desperately in need of jobs and investment getting gunned-down by officers standing above the law they themselves enforce, between an unpredictable demagogue-bigot and a missile-firing oligarch who is also above the law. What we have is a nation already divided. In this kind of situation the way has already been left open for riots, extreme nationalism relying purely on emotional attachment to empty symbols, and a mainstream media that happily shows it all to us to boost their ratings.  To stop this undesirable outcome, the principles invoked by the flag and other symbols need to be reflected in the realities of the nation.

With this in mind, we should thank Colin Kaepernick for raising the alarm bells and forcing viewers of some of the most watched television programming in football to reconsider just how much the ideals of American society are reflected in its present form. A two-tiered law system, predatory banking system, and a permanent, invasive surveillance system are precisely the things that the founders of the American nation tried to prevent. A cool, calm, and collected explanation for why he is exercising his right of free speech and a basic understanding of what the national symbols represent (vs. their sanctity) would do everyone a favor right now.

Some of the best commentary on the issue has come from military veterans in the #VeteransForKaepernick hashtag: [The Intercept: VeteransForKaepernick]

And for some fun lite reading on the media farce like only a local beat writer can do, read Ray Ratto: [Kaepernick Controversy: America Reaches New Levels of Insanity]

Now for what I’ve been waiting for all along:

Colin Kaepernick is easily the best choice for the starting 49ers quarterback in 2016. He has already proved that he is a Superbowl caliber quarterback who can a lead a team deep into the playoffs, as he did back in 2012 and 2013. He electrified the league when he came in with his ridiculous speed and strong arm. He has one of the highest ceilings of any quarterback in the league, right up their with Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers. He continued to get better with his accuracy and pocket-presence throughout his career and deserves none of the blame for the team troubles of 2014 and 2015. In the former they lost some games that were very close and very winnable but still went 8 and 8 – sometimes a playoff worthy record but not that year. That year was also a franchise record-setting year for sacks, which are largely the fault of the offensive line, so he had to play under immense stress. Here is a run down of why they underperformed: [What Went Wrong for the San Francisco 49ers in the 2014 Season]. It’s hard for a QB to play well when a) all the players around you don’t care, let in pass rushers, and drop balls b) the offensive coordinator simplifies the offense and c) the coaches limit your running abilities and don’t design plays that complement your talent. Also, the league came down heavy on the 49ers defense and threw penalty flag after penalty flag for offenses that were went unpunished in previous years; the NFL had an image problem and it sent a message that year that it would be protecting its players health more now. I felt the 49ers took the brunt of this policy change, but I’m also biased.

After that year, 2015 was a throw away year in which everyone and their mother knew that head coach Jim Tomsula was a one-year fill-in for the next long term head coach the 49ers would acquire later. The team was a total mess, with a huge chunk of its personnel leaving or retiring to get away from the front office disaster that resulted from the falling-out of the widely successful and popular head coach Jim Harbaugh and team owner Jed York. Everyone in San Francisco, most of the Bay Area and a good deal of American football fans knows that Jed York is the spoiled brat of a team owner and is responsible for the teams plummet to the bottom of the league. None of this is Kaep’s fault.

This year they are starting Blaine Gabbert, an unsuccessful quarterback who had bad years with a bad team in Jacksonville. He came in last year mid-season and was sub-par, but the team wanted to give him a chance during a throw-away year and Kaepernick also eventually got injured. Kaep is now healthy and has a far greater history of success in the league. Those read-option sweeps that the 49ers have been running to get first downs and extend drives (until the opponent’s defense makes the adjustment and forces Gabbert to try and throw the ball down field, which he can’t do reliably enough) would be far better suited for Kaepernick’s abilities. He runs way faster and has far more agility for those and other types of plays coming out of Chip Kelly’s “hurry-up offense”. He also has a stronger, more accurate arm to trump Gabbert’s ground balls he kept throwing in games 1-3. Gabbert is a competent game manager and can beat bad teams, but the 49ers want to get into the playoffs and maybe even win some of those games.

The only way they are going to do that is with Colin Kaepernick as their starting QB. This means his protest will continue gaining media attention, especially when he is inserted into a game early on or starts. Ditto for if he becomes successful or fails, because everyone in the nation will be either with or against him. The 49ers might just keep him sitting to avoid paying any more of his contract next year, but that would be another move that would paint Jed York as a team saboteur for those paying attention. The local media and the team must necessarily stand behind their starter, but the constant stories about it is only a sign that the conversation about Gabbert’s replacement is being had.


The Art of War and Geopolitics

In Sun Tzu’s military classic from ancient China The Art of War we get an early work of geopolitics. The text is well known for providing insights into commanding a military, maintaining discipline within ranks, and emphasizing the right mind-set for victory but a large part of it is devoted to classifying and evaluating terrain. The relationship an army has with the earth upon which it travels is one of the key aspects that leads it to victory or defeat, perhaps the key. The word geopolitics evokes control of resources, topographical access routes and choke points, and alliance-building amongst nations and states (or lords and chiefdoms) – all of which are discussed in the Art of War, only in the context of war in the ancient world instead of economics.

Modern warfare has grown far more complex and broadened its scope to include every vital component of a nation’s industrial output, with economics and international trade flows entering the military picture. What Sun Tzu’s famous work does in its military exposition of terrain is foster the image of the earth as a place or ground upon which forces both human and non-human are moved in certain predictable ways. It is in properly adapting one’s forces to the formations of the earth’s surface that victory is assured. A general’s success requires correct decisions but a great deal of the preparation for making those decisions is in analyzing the earth’s terrain. This mindset allows the reader to more easily imagine how power is established on earth and become primed to understand what is called in modernity geopolitics.

The meaning of Earth in The Art of War is contrasted with Heaven, although the two do not constitute different worlds as they historically have in the Christian West. Earth is typically used when referring to the ground that is walked on while Heaven refers to the greater constraints surrounding the earth up in the sky but also the state and its rule by the despot. Much of Chinese history is a succession of divine emperors with a special relationship to Heaven and from which the state derives its authority. The contrast is stark in the case of China: the emperor rules the earthly kingdom down below from the center of the state and with the authority of Heaven from up above. According to Sun Tzu, what unites them into a harmonious state is the Tao (Way):

“The Tao causes the people to be fully in accord with the ruler. Thus will die with him; they will live with him and not fear death.

Heaven encompasses yin and yang, cold and heat, and the constraints of the seasons.

Earth encompasses far or near, difficult or easy, expansive or confronted, fatal or tenable terrain.” (Chapter 1, Initial Estimations)

The ever-important and always sought after Tao is the unifying glue that keeps ruler and people, general and soldier together. It also ensures that warriors and aristocracy are bound together in a common cause, but warfare is conducted under different circumstances than state administration. The state is stationary and is located on a fixed territory whose borders can expand or shrink so long as it doesn’t dissolve or become subsumed. It’s duty is administration and it is from here that the decisions to go to war are made that the military then carries out. The military, on the other hand, is mobile and ruled by the generals orders as they maneuver through the terrain of the earth. These are two different and opposed organizations of a social body that have allied, or we could say, with Deleuze and Guattari, that the military’s war machine is captured by the state apparatus. The Tao in all of its glory and prestige is here viewed as a tool for capture. As Sun Tzu makes clear at the beginning of chapter seven, the despot is in control but then let loose: “[From the time] the general receives his commands from the ruler, unites the armies, and assembles the masses, to confronting the enemy and encamping, there is nothing more difficult than military combat.” He also notes at the end of chapter three that the general’s military is on a campaign it should be left alone: “One whose general is capable and not interfered with by the ruler will be victorious.”

Heaven is also not merely invoked as a province of the state but denotes the sky and wind which are not so far above the ground. When the army moves and strikes with fury, Sun Tzu often describes this as the force whose “speed is like the wind” (ch.7) or that crashes down “from above with the greatest heights of Heaven.” (ch.4). This is to say that the Heaven of Sun Tzu and his time is above the ground and soars high but doesn’t constitute another world unto itself. Earth and Heaven are natural forces that can be manipulated by the army and the state. It is something greater (not higher) than Heaven in the Tao that brings with it the unity of military and state, ruler and people, and general and soldier – the glue that creates cohesion. In a way, the army seeks Heaven by gaining the high ground from which it can attack using less energy and with the force of gravity on its side. Obviously high ground is still ground and so part of the earth but the meaning is clear: the strategic advantage is gained by properly utilizing the elemental forces of both Earth and Heaven.

While an irresistible attack force bears down from Heaven high above, good military strategy is built from the ground-up. As the general plans the movement and positioning of his troops he must master surveying the terrain. It is the earth that dictates the right decisions for the military; though the general must ultimately make the decision, he must observe the configurations of the terrain and plan in accordance with it or perish. This is made clear in chapter 4, ‘Military Dispositions’:

“As for military methods: … Terrain gives birth to measurement; measurement produces the estimation [of forces]. Estimation [of forces] gives rise to calculating [the numbers of men]. Calculating [the numbers of men] gives rise to weighing [strength]. Weighing [strength] gives birth to victory.” (ch.4)

So the general begins with assessing the terrain, which then leads to measurement, then estimation, then calculation, then weighing, then victory. Going backwards in this logical series, the stronger army will be victorious, but this (weighted) strength requires men. Attaining a superior number of men requires calculation. This calculation (dealing with numbers) relies on estimation, which is further distinguished from calculation in a footnote as follows: “‘Estimation’ is variously described as referring to types of forces suitable for segments of the terrain, such as crossbowmen for the hills, or the quantities of materials required to sustain the battle.” (p.312) Estimation, or matching the type of forces with the corresponding advantageous terrain comes from measurement of the terrain where the general should begin. In another footnote, we learn that “‘Measurement’ is generally understood by the commentators as referring not only to the extent and dimensions of the terrain but also its classification according to the categories advanced in the various chapters that follow.” (p.312) So measurement, like estimation, does not involve numbers but is like surveying the terrain to best determine how to deploy ones army. It comes down to the terrain, or the varieties of the earth, with regards to “military disposition” and “method.” Excepting the last two chapters on incendiary attacks and spies, respectively, the last part of The Art of War is about how to deal with the variety of terrains and the army.

In chapter 11, ‘Nine Terrains’ we learn the classification of terrains and gain advice on what actions to take with respect to them.

“When the feudal lords fight in their own territory, it is ‘dispersive terrain.’

When thy enter someone else’s territory, but not deeply, it is ‘light terrain.’

If when we occupy it, it will be advantageous to us while if they occupy it, it will be advantageous to them, it is ‘contentious terrain.’

When we can go and they can also come, it is ‘traversable terrain.’

Land of the feudal lords surrounded on three sides such that whoever arrives first will gain the masses of All under Heaven is ‘focal terrain.’

“When one penetrates deeply into enemy territory, bypassing numerous cities, it is ‘heavy terrain.’

Where there are mountains and forests, ravines and defiles, wetlands and marshes, wherever the road is difficult to negotiate, it is ‘entrapping terrain.’

“Where the entrance is constricted, the return is circuitous, and with a small number they can strike out masses, it is ‘encircled terrain.’

Where if one fights with intensity he will survive but if he does not fight with intensity he will perish, it is ‘fatal terrain.’” (my emphasis)

The main goal for an army is to seize the focal terrain. This is to seize the enemy’s capital and gain control of all of the people in the state, their resources, administration, and, to use Sun Tzu’s parlance, “the masses of All under Heaven”. This being a text written for generals of state-deployed armies (and it is hard to imagine a text written by barbarians for the purpose of military strategy as opposed to oral stories), the objective is to acquire another state’s territory and assume rule for one’s army’s ruler. Focal terrain takes on a geopolitical significance when it is seen as the central node in the network of state distribution. It is terrain without which one could not rule and administer a great many people in the largest territory possible – the territory within the borders of the state. This is ground where the concentration of power is the greatest.

The location of focal terrain and so the state capital is not arbitrary but a matter of defense and accessibility. It too is predetermined by the shape of the earth in terms of being such an important location that one must choose a spot that will be difficult to overtake by an invading army. But it is easy to see why focal terrain is associated with Heaven in that it is the place where the ruler can rule over all his subjects. It is a state-decision made by men that determines focal terrain and its purpose is to allow for the state to endure as long as possible. A state is meant to persist as long as possible and its borders must retain integrity. It’s capture is then a long-term goal of a captured military (by the state) and redirected by the state to follow its dictates. Focal terrain is the nexus that connects a mobile military force with a territorial state: the military flows towards the focal terrain with this alliance and receives the glory bestowed by the state for its services.

Light terrain and heavy terrain are both defined with respect to the borders of the state. Sun Tzu’s advice on light terrain is to “not stop” and “have [the troops] group together”, presumably because the opposing army will quickly reinforce their border’s integrity and troops will be inclined to return to the safety of their own home territory. His advice for heavy terrain is to “ensure a continuous supply of provisions” though “plunder.” “When the troops have penetrated deeply, they will be unified, but where only shallowly, they will [be inclined to] scatter.” To be deep inside an enemy’s territory is to be in a hostile environment and that common experience pulls the troops together in fear. From here on to the focal terrain it is a matter of not falling into entrapping terrain, encircled terrain, and, of course, fatal terrain. An army must occupy and hold contentious terrain first and then is told “do not attack”, on traversable terrain “focus on defense”, because the field is open on all sides.

Sun Tzu’s advice for entrapping terrain is to move quickly, not to encamp or do battle. These places are the marshes, forests, mountains and so forth that restrict movement. A very important principle is to not become trapped, channeled into a narrow space where the enemy can attack you with a small force (encircled terrain), or otherwise be forced into restricted spaces. It is here on encircled terrain that a general’s strategic prowess is most put to test, for Sun Tzu simply says “use strategy.” Here is where the complex configurations of flanking, surrounding, and holding lines comes into play, that is, as long as one general hasn’t thoroughly out-prepared the other. When you are on fatal terrain, it is win or die. This should of course be avoided, but it is also an opportunity to demonstrate to the troops that they must to battle with the utmost ferocity – leave it all out on the battlefield. A fatal battle is not necessary in a war but is the worst case scenario. This is roughly how to “[r]ealize the appropriate employment of the hard and soft through the patterns of terrain.”

Since a general cannot have a superior knowledge of a foreign territory, he must gain that knowledge with help. Sun Tzu advises using the locals to explain their terrain, for this information is paramount. “One who does not know the topography of mountains and forests, ravines and defiles, wetlands and marshes cannot maneuver the army. One who does not employ local guides will not secure advantages of terrain.” So again geographical tactics are the way to keep one’s army moving and successful. It is rather interesting to note that Sun Tzu seems to be speaking to the generals of invading armies rather than ones in defense, although one could easily reverse these principles and try to restrict a foreign army invading ones home territory with entrapping, encircling, and disrupting their alliances.

In the preceding chapter, ‘The Configurations of Terrain’, we get another category of terrains that are even more specific to the relationship between two armies confronting each other. These terms operate as simple directives so I will only touch on them briefly:

“If we can go forth and the enemy can also advance, it is termed ‘accessible.’ In an accessible configuration, first occupy the heights and yang [sunny] [side], and improve the routes for transporting provisions. Then when we engage in battle, it will be advantageous.

If we can go forth but it will be difficult to return, it is termed ‘suspended.’ In a suspended configuration, if they are unprepared go forth and conquer them…

If it is not advantageous for us to go forth nor advantageous for the enemy to come forward, it is termed “stalemated.”…

As for constricted configurations, if we occupy them first we must fully deploy throughout them in order to await the enemy. If the enemy occupies them first and fully deploys in them, do not follow them in…

As for precipitous configurations, if we occupy them we must hold the heights and yang [sunny] side to await the enemy. If the enemy occupies them first, withdraw [our forces] and depart…

As for expansive configurations, if our strategic power is equal, it will be difficult to provoke them to combat. Engaging them in combat will not be advantageous.” (ch.10)

It is maneuvering within these configurations and terrains that the advantage is gained, with a preparing eye always focused on the moves ahead. It is important to add that even when the advantage is lost or one is under-prepared, the soldiers can also overtake the opposing soldiers with better training or the simple and unpredictable element of battlefield luck.

As testified by the still present popularity of The Art of War, the conduct of war has not changed in its most fundamental aspects. War is fought by the proper control of the flow of humans and goods over the diversity of the surface of the earth. An army is an easy to distinguish force of humans who must act in a disciplined and hierarchical manner. Ancient warfare is conducted at a much different scale than modern warfare, but the close attachment to the earth remains. War has changed its shape drastically over the recent centuries with the invention of guns and explosives, production of greater vehicles, ships and so forth with steel, and the greater complexity of forces of economic production. Colonies have long been an objective of military might but the increase in technological innovation has enlarged the scale of resource extraction, leading empire to become something different in form and justifying the new word imperialism. British imperial control of sea-routes for its mercantile trade and subsequent American control of petroleum and international finance are examples of warfare taken to new heights. These developments extend the earth-dependent theater of war into politics with the aptly termed geopolitics.

Modern war is less delineated between military and civilian, with the twentieth and early twenty-first century seeing unprecedented civilian deaths and tactics that blur the line. The theater of war seems to have spread throughout the globe along with the ever refined image of the map, which is strangely enough the view of the earth from the Heavens. With these new tools like the map, and a standard mass education with which to read them, a great many more people are able to think and understand the strategies and tactics of war and geopolitics. The state is, at least in theory or through struggle, capable of fulfilling its modern quality as a nation-state and allow the people to have more decision-making power than the despotic rulers of “All under Heaven” of the past. In this way, through nations and international bodies, people ought to be able to influence the actions of the state in a way that only a ruler and his court could before. Just as the operations of war have expanded into civilian and economic realms, so those realms can influence the decisions to engage in war or not – provided political power is actually attained.

To better influence the right course of action (or Tao if you will), a public would be advised to use the achievements of the nation and become educated in the ways of geopolitics. Adding the earth to political opinions is not only a better way to predict and impose one’s will within the political but has been emphasized in the methods of warfare since at least ancient times.


I used Ralph D. Sawyer’s 1994 Basic Books edition of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for all quotes.  The image is the book cover.

The Students for a Democratic Society and the Legacy of the New Left

During his introductory remarks to a panel at the recent People’s Summit, Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now! drew comparisons between popular political mobilizations on the left today with those of the sixties. [Juan Gonzalez to the Bernie or Bust Movement: Don’t Repeat the Mistakes in 1968 that Elected Nixon] (Short clip) The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were the exemplary institution of the new left and their efforts are generally thought to be the beginning of a shift in leftist political tactics. They sought to reinvigorate citizen political action and conducted new experiments in democratic organization, bringing many invigorated young people into political consciousness and helping create the political tumult of the sixties. Gonzalez explicitly referenced this movement when he compares them to the Bernie Sanders campaign, hoping that we will learn the lessons provided by their attempt and, what Gonzalez believes to be, their failure. But who were these people and what moved them to play such a role in politics? Was their upstart institution and the ideas that formed it a failure upon which we can blame the election of Richard Nixon as Gonzalez claims? Is the implied conclusion that #BernieOrBust supporters should fall in line with the establishment left and a neoliberal Hillary Clinton justified and have we actually gained anything from the radical “participatory democracy” philosophy of the SDS?

In attempting to answer these big questions, I want to share a reading of James Miller’s Democracy Is in the Streets so that we may come to an understanding about what it is that moves these “grassroots movements.” There seems to be wide consensus, even if tacit, that the Bernie Sanders supporters comprise a “Movement” as opposed to a typical campaign. This could be a result of the striking similarity of his campaign rhetoric and the grievances of the Occupy Wall Street, with the unmistakable popular excitement common to both. Though I’m skeptical of this word usage for a presidential campaign, the more important issue lies (and everyone seems to be jumping in on the opportunity, from Jill Stein to Donald Trump) in what to do now with the “grassroots support” and “energized populism” that Sanders was able to rouse now that it seems he will not get the Democratic Party nomination. Juan Gonzalez wishes to speak to this mass of people by saying not to repeat the mistakes of the past, which he believes the SDS embodies.

The most memorable of SDS demonstrations culminated in a spectacular event that landed on live television for a large audience to see: police rushing into the crowd and beating protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, 1968. The democrats would lose the presidential election to the Republican Nixon and at the highest levels of American politics (and, by virtue of being the dominant global power, politics around the world) the left would be fighting a defensive battle against the ascending neoliberalism all the way up to the present. This is what most people will remember and ever since we’ve had to live with a commonsense split between upstart idealistic youngsters and the establishment realists who are supposedly doing the political dirty work of protecting the gains made for labor and the welfare state. On this model, a constant upsurge of fresh young radicals feeds the machine of progressive politics, though relations between both sides are often bitter. This is, of course, the view from the center looking out at the periphery: the state-thinking political strategist would see popular mobilizations as a reserve to tap for its own purposes. If we are to understand these popular mobilizations, we had best treat them and they’re ideas on their own and not what just what they can do for the Democratic Party. So the two big questions I would like to pursue here are: how to interpret the phenomenon of the Student’s for a Democratic Society with respect to the present and what within the legacy of New Left is there to positively retain and what to avoid?

Writing about or speaking to a movement as a whole in broad strokes has dangers of its own. After all, we should not fall into the trap of preaching to a mass of people for the sake of furthering our own agenda without understanding why we feel we can talk to this mass of people in the first place. That is, determining what has shaped this force into a single group that we can designate a ‘movement’ should come before telling them how to behave. Taking a look at the specific history of the SDS brings us to the beginning of a new discourse that still lives on today thanks to the vitality its participants displayed and the wide proliferation of their terms and slogans. Although having a great impact on political thought among a wide range of individuals during its heyday, the SDS has largely been forgotten. It lives on in the memory of those who participated (for those who are still alive) but what was learned, accomplished, or simply expressed in their words and deeds is by-and-large left for the next generation of democratically-inspired youngsters to repeat. Every new generation throws a style and flavor of its own on popular movement-building against capitalism and imperialism on the left, but the resilience of these dominant and dominating trends is partially due to just that: new generations hitting the same roadblocks and breaking down, if in their own unique way. If there is in fact a continuity of the left, as the extreme and unparalleled influence of parent’s political beliefs on their children attests (and even leans toward the left with young people) [Gallup], then this continuity is in a rut when we can’t reach an agreement about the lessons of previous experiments in democracy. Argument and debate can be empowering and productive exercises for sure; leveling criticism at each other and challenging erroneous assumptions instead of relying on tradition as a crutch to fall back on is part of what makes the left worth fighting for in the first place. To prepare the way for the emergence of the new, upon which the left thrives, a new generation of struggle should actually be new, not the mere rhythmic heart-beat of upsurges and lulls.

The first thing that strikes the eyes upon working through James Miller’s book is that Tom Hayden, Steve Max, Sharon Jeffrey, Al Haber, and the rest of the main actors that made up the Students for a Democratic Society had an intellectual (or spiritual) leader for their organization. They all read and discussed C Wright Mills’ work and used his terminology to orient themselves and their political beliefs. Mills was a famous writer for his time and I have seen copies of his most well-known book The Power Elite floating around, but his ideas would not survive into college curriculum or speak to any further generations the way it did for members of SDS. He was more of a populist rhetorician than a systematic intellectual and his firebrand style of writing struck a cord with his target audience. “Mills gambled is academic reputation to reach a larger audience,” writes Miller, “and in one sense, he won: Listen Yankee, his polemical defense of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, sold more than 400,000 copies as a Ballantine paperback.” (p.86) Though inspiring, Mills would not provide a plan of action, only the imperative to act – with democracy in mind. He reached a wide audience and won the hearts of the young and motivated, but the primary term that he positively promoted and the SDS repeated as their credo (or closest thing they had to a credo) was a rather vague one in “participatory democracy.” Citizens are implored to become engaged with politics at a face-to-face level, get organized, and become aware of the greater structures in authoritative politics but like Kant’s categorical imperative, the content was left undefined. There wasn’t a proposed vision for a democratic society or a systematic account of how such a society would operate, only a sense of urgency in creating one by actively working to achieve it. This doesn’t stop a number of values from shining forth in his and the SDS’s writings; what it does is place an emotional demand inside of confused concepts. After all, drawing a large group of committed individuals together with similar beliefs might be impressive, while the ends of such a collective effort stop with the impression itself only to disintegrate. The question always lingers: what do we want? What’s the end game? The answer ‘Participatory Democracy’ would prove to be too unspecific to keep the organization together beyond the sixties.

Mills, via Miller, did speak about an idea in his earlier work that could operate as either an end or a skeleton with which to run an organization. A ‘primary public’ was a concept that allowed individuals to meet with each other and form collective opinions that would then give them a stronger voice. This was an idea from earlier in Mills’ career (dug up by James Miller’s acute research) that was a response to a study done in one mid-sized Illinois city about public opinion and its under-representation. In light of this study, “Mills concluded that “primary publics” – face-to-face groups of friends – actively responded to opinions expressed in the mass media, rejecting some, modifying others, arriving at their own, independent views through the give-and-take of “person-to-person discussion” (p.84) were a model for the enactment and spread of this idea. If the infrastructure and funding for renting out space had been spearheaded by a large organization like the SDS, we might have places where groups of friends could meet and mingle with other groups to unify their voices in a new form of media.

However, it was the theoretical frame for these empirical observations – and not the sanguine conclusions, which he subsequently modified – that Mills would return to repeatedly in his later works. In order to clarify the difference between opinions shaped by the mass media and those formed through face-to-face interactions, Mills defined two ideal types: the “mass ideal-type of ‘public’ in a mass society” and, by way of contrast, “the primary publics” typical of “the simpler democratic society.” (p.84)

The tension between two ideal types in ‘primary publics’ and ‘mass society’ would become Mills’ emphasis in his subsequent writing and would have a greater influence on the SDS. Achieving a politics with more presence (the oft repeated “face-to-face”) as opposed to the distance between the majority of citizens and the decisions made in government is the clear goal, a goal that seems to think it will be reached once people are brought together in simple act of becoming “present.”

In providing a distinction that could be repeated by the students off the top of their head, Mills armed the nascent group with a sense of righteousness and also gave them an enemy to harangue. “In The Power Elite, by describing in detail the trends in modern America toward “manipulated consent” and then reminding his readers of the lost ideal of face-to-face freedom, Mills made outrage easy.” (p.86) The simple act of getting together could be seen as at once liberating and a challenge to the system. In defeating the mass type of coerced complacency, people could hold a meeting and discuss politics with each other to defeat it. The very act of appearing would be its own reward, the means and ends of participatory democracy: “Freedom is an endless meeting,” read a pamphlet in the mid-sixties. But was this freedom limited to being a mere expression of anger in the way the government was run? Miller’s assessment of Mills’ conceptual personae:

“To rouse his audience, he was prepared to sacrifice subtlety, nuance, the patient evaluation of contradictory evidence – in short, the virtues of dispassionate scholarship. His carefully cultivated image – the powerless intellectual as populist outlaw – masked an unresolved tension between an emotional sense of outrage and the conviction, inherited from the pragmatists, that reason ought properly to control man’s destiny. He epitomized a politics of theatrical fury and mythomanic fervor, of high moral seriousness, savage social criticism and peculiarly blinkered self-righteousness.” (p.89)

One might wonder what’s wrong with being passionate about one’s political convictions. While an undeniable utility exists in stirring up a readership, an intellectual can offer more in terms of direction should they become widely influential. As an author moving many individuals into action, Mills had the rare opportunity to become that intellectual leader. As a writer producing books that had a resounding authoritative assurance behind them, the injection of passionate urgency into his readers/followers in the absence of a clear vision cuts away the real complexity of the powers at play when he could be dissecting them. The call becomes louder, the rage increases, but what ties together the inspired readers is nothing but the shared experience of reading the same book and being strongly affected by it. The courage for one’s convictions is glaring, but the conviction itself cannot persist or be reproduced from one group of friends/activists to another. Individuals would complain of the “in-group” phenomenon whereby everyone who had read Mills could speak with each other smoothly but alienate everyone else. In short, the common bond of the New Left would be the shear emotion of anger – a shared dissatisfaction with the predicament of mass society in contrast to the ideal-type of the “primary public,” which nobody had any experience of beyond the reading of a few books.

The emphasis Mills would put into his canonical works rested on the tension between these two ideal types rather than a constructive idea that could be put into practice or a systematic argument for answering why pure face-to-face democracy was superior to mass society. This made his work less endearing to American intellectual culture in the way that Camus’ work would become required reading in France (and elsewhere) and so perpetuate the existential movement, or Dewey’s lengthy tombs would preserve pragmatism. This very same dilemma would unfold within the SDS itself when it faced the problem of either transitioning to an institutional organization with chapters and a headquarters or remaining diffuse. As I already remarked, the SDS would fade away as an institution but its patterns of behavior in fomenting tense commitment to challenging power as such would survive within the New Left. At a critical juncture when it had broken through into the mass media and received many letters asking for membership or literature, nobody was there to process the mail. In the spirit of uprooting the bureaucratic mentality and elitism within the movement, nobody could be counted on to accomplish banal yet necessary tasks. “Elitism was routed, but virtually no mail was processed.” (p.244)

The SDS was built up in the early sixties mainly by the efforts of Tom Hayden and Al Haber. Haber would secure funding from The League of Industrial Democracy (LID), while Hayden would tour the country and forge connections with SNCC, demonstrate in McComb, Mississippi, and hone his writing skill as an activist-journalist. They would forge connections with existing activist groups on campuses across the country, scour university lists and slowly build up a following by talking with individuals face-to-face – as according to their principals.

Using his core list as “an acupuncture map of the body politic,” Haber made the rounds of the different campuses, often with Tom Hayden at his side. “It was custom politics,” says Haber. “I would say to them that what you want to do requires interacting with other people in other places who are doing the same thing you’re doing, people who are doing related things, people who have some connection with a tradition that goes way back in America to 1905, people who are in touch with intellectual currents around the world, people who are writers, who have worked and looked at the situation that you’re dealing with. Get in touch with these other people who are making history relevant; see that you are allied in a task. That will make your writing better, it will make the world you want better. You need an organization for that” – an organization like SDS.” (p.71)

The SDS was then an ur-organization for student radicals that brought disparate student groups together under one national name and coordinated actions. As the organization grew, its members decided that they needed to forge a document that would elaborate on who they were and what they wanted. The Port Huron Statement would be the results of a collective effort at making a declaration of principles for the SDS and would become the first major work of the New Left. Fifty-nine people would come to Port Huron Michigan and stay for three days of deliberation, break-out sessions, and group editing. The finished product is a 43 page monument and it took exhaustive work to complete, but what not everyone knows is that Tom Hayden wrote a series of draft notes that were sent out to members before the convergence. Hayden was the SDS’s star writer and it was his vision that prompted the creation of the document, everyone else edited and refined his draft notes for the manifesto. The writings of a speech that Hayden gave in Ann Arbor Michigan called ‘Student Social Action’ had been circulated just recently in pamphlet form and his language was speaking to a great number of people within SDS.

Other members of the SDS like Steve Max were critical of Hayden’s bookish style. ““I had never gone to college,” explains Max,

We saw a very concrete series of tasks and never quite understood what Hayden and these guys were talking about. You had to know all these books. We didn’t understand that very often it was the courses that students were taking and the books they were reading, by Mills or one of those people, that first started them thinking about politics…”” (p.103)

The talk coming out of this group was very abstract and spoke for their entire generation but sounded like their favorite author C Wright Mills – an author who not everyone had read and didn’t offer a quick and easy theory to digest. Added to that criticism was the uneasiness of their money source at LID for not being anti-communist enough or “soft on communism.” Michael Harrington would also attend the Port Huron meeting and clash with Hayden and Haber over de-emphasizing workers over students and not heeding the lessons of LID’s experience with communist infiltrators seeking to take over their organization. Though Harrington would regret coming down so hard on this group (p.135), his alarmism over the influence of communists over an ambiguously defined group of budding young political activists would be prophetic:

Ignorant of history many of them defiantly remained. And seven years later the organization that they had struggled to set on an ecumenical and open-minded footing would pay the price. In 1969, after several dizzying years of anarchic grass-roots growth and increasingly arcane bickering over strategy among a new generation of leaders who were far more contemptuous of the past than the founding generation, SDS was successfully infiltrated and captured by the Progressive Labor Party – a disciplined cadre of self-styled Marxist-Leninists.” (p.139)

The debate between the LID traditionalists, primarily through the voice of the relatively older Harrington at age 34, and the younger SDS members would continue on after the finalizing of the document. While the students were fresh off of the glowing experience of completing the statement after intense discussion, drunk on the prospect of making history in initiating a mass movement on a supposedly solid footing, LID was furious and “summoned the SDS leadership in New York to an emergency meeting” (p.127) soon after. They wrestled over the lack of a forceful denunciation of the Soviet Union, which LID believed the Port Huron Statement did not contain forcefully enough. Hayden defended himself by saying that they had in fact rejected Communism but then added that America’s general attitude towards it was an overreaction. Without much experience dealing with Communists, which in fact were not powerful on campuses and didn’t exert much influence, Hayden thought that such a defiantly oppositional stance towards Communism would be too restrictive to their experiments in democracy and bolster the persecuting Cold Warriors in the US. “What we want to do is find a way to end the Cold War and increase democracy in the U.S. and we think the two are related. We advocate universal controlled disarmament, foreign-policy initiatives in strengthening of international organization, trying to do what will create political rather than military foreign policy in the U.S. and Soviet Union.” (p.128) Without much experience with the tactics and ideological furor with which a Communist party acted, Hayden and the rest of SDS wanted a peaceful reconciliation with the Soviets on the grand national level and to be able to absorb some of the more humane aspects of communal organizing.

Hayden and Haber left the meeting but were called back for another meeting, this time with more veteran trade unionists. Harrington charged SDS again with being soft on Communism and “united frontism. He accused SDS of committing the venal political sin of

““accepting reds to your meeting… You knew this would send LID through the roof. This issue was settled on the left ten or twenty years ago – and that you could countenance any united frontism now is inconceivable…” And so it went on for two grueling hours. Hayden and Haber were soft on Communism. Ferocious in their criticism of America, they were willing simply to tap the Soviets on the wrist.” (p.131)

The SDS regrouped and held a meeting in which they contemplating leaving LID, but chose to revise key parts of the manifesto instead – just the kind of rapprochement they were advocating for the Cold War. This proved to be enough and both old and young radical leftists chilled out.

In James Miller’s view, the League of Industrial Democracy had been too harsh on the young group. After all,

[a] year later, President Kennedy himself reopened the public debate over Communism and the Cold War by saying, in his famous American University speech in June of 1968, “Let us reexamine out attitude toward the Soviet Union.” By the mid-sixties, it was difficult to read the revised Port Huron Statement and to find in it anything radically different from the positions shared by many mainstream politicians… The blind passion of Harrington’s anti-Communism, by contrast, soon came to seem like an atavism – even to Harrington himself.” (p.135)

However, the SDS was eventually infiltrated by the Marxist-Leninists already mentioned, even in the very same decade. Wouldn’t this suggest that more not less pressure to prevent Communist thinking and ideology from filtering into the organization would have been advisable? The lessons of these Old Left movements could have been passed down to these New Left actors much more effectively but the transition from new to old went by way of an angry shouting match instead. The SDS would harden its skin against such emotionally charged attacks by the old guard and this helped sharpen the generational divide. “At some point, though, the debate had ceased to be about principles, and had become instead a struggle over the autonomy of the younger generation.” (p.138, emphasis added) Had the older group been softer on youth curiosity, the New Left might not have strayed so far away from the Old and the follies of outdated ideologies might not have reasserted themselves in such a scattered manner. Such an episode highlights the lack of continuity amongst the left in general and how raw emotion would come to define the modus operandi of non-institutional progressive-democratic politics.

In the spirit of allowing this new group of political actors to speak for themselves instead of speaking to this raw mass of people, some space will need to be provided for understanding their own concepts and vocabulary. What stands out is the term ‘participatory democracy’: “It became a catchword – used over and over again, to recruit, to convert, to convince.” (p.142) But what did it mean? In Miller’s estimation, determining a precise meaning to ‘participatory democracy’ “leads into a labyrinth.” Like movements to come following the New Left trajectory, ‘participatory democracy’ was a way of eluding a standard definition – one’s actions performed during the effort of participation would come to stand in for the meaning of the term. While an inviting and uplifting concept, the content was left vacant and you the actor (which was usually first the reader) would be left to fill it in. Miller decided it has three qualities:

As a catchword, “participatory democracy” is remarkable for its resonance – its multiple layers of implied meaning… its elasticity – the ease with which it could be stretched to cover a wide variety of different political situations; and its instability – a volatility caused, in part, by its range of different possible meanings and the implicit contradictions they contained.” (p.142)

This helps clarify the deployment of the word; it seemed to be able to do anything so long as it found energetic subjects to cling to. Democracy was already a hallmark of established American politics and used by mainstream politicians including a major party, so there was no risk of reaching a dearth of young bodies to become turned on to it. And who wouldn’t wish to participate in democracy anyways? It is practically baked right into the concept of democracy itself, unless one does not view themselves as part of the people who would be doing the ruling (over themselves) or wish not to participate in their own rule (and so would not believe in democracy). As a concept it could draw new people into a discussion about what actions to take and hold a near undeniable appeal, but it could not provide any direction, any instruction (such as a parent or teacher might give) for what actions would be desirable or how to behave once undertaken. It was like a force of gravity that merely kept wandering comets in orbit without determining their internal composition or flight path.

This effect was intended by the SDS. They didn’t want to be the arbiters of decision-making but merely bring invigorated people into political prominence and say “go.” “To this extent, the ambiguity surrounding participatory democracy in The Port Huron Statement was deliberate: more than an empty slogan but less than a formal doctrine, it was an open invitation to embark on a shared adventure of political discovery.” (p.143) But this open-ended aspect of ‘participatory democracy’ is also deceptive because there are obvious political persuasions of the individuals in SDS, not to mention the entire Unionist, anti-Capitalist background of their financial supporters LID. Seen from this vantage point, the slogans of the manifesto were an ingenious way for building up a following of students, charging them up with political zeal, and unleashing them into actions that would benefit the working class that they would likely very soon join. As appetizing as this sounds, with their indeterminate concept and their autonomy to freely devise the targets of their actions, the SDS could not maintain an enduring institutional presence beyond the exuberance that such a concept could gather. Adding to that is the fact that they were billing themselves as the latest incarnation of an entire tradition that they would claim and send a charge through. Seen from this vantage point, the championing of ‘participatory democracy’ by the SDS was like playing with dangerous fireworks inside of a house. Without the means and will to perpetuate the kind of energy that they meant to inject into politics, such energy could crash and burn the house down in a kind of ‘burnout’ that wouldn’t be constrained to one’s private dejection, no matter how quietly one went out.

Miller interviewed the key members of the SDS in writing his book and many of them placed their organization with a socialist trajectory. Speaking on the meaning of ‘participatory democracy’, Bob Ross said, “[o]ur problem was to find a way to talk about socialism in an American accent”, Richard Flacks said, “[i]t meant an exciting transformation of the meaning of socialism”, and Steve Max said, “[i]t didn’t strike those of us who had more of a formal socialist orientation that it was really the key thing.” And so Miller asks,

[w]as participatory democracy a euphemism for socialism or an exciting transformation of the socialist idea? Was it an epiphenomenon of more fundamental social realities that would arise in due course once some form of socialism had replaced capitalism? Or was it a new form of political organization distinct from and irreducible to any form of economic organization?… Would it focus new attention on political procedures, as a response, in part, to the tendency of socialist and Communist parties to develop into centralized bureaucracies? Or would such a theory emphasize “authenticity” and action, and explore the means by which human beings summoned the will to resist the blind onrush of events and, against all odds, managed to seize control of their lives and make history?” (p.145)

Of course, these questions could not be definitively answered by participatory democracy or the SDS, making them a kind of flurry of rhetorical questions that demonstrates what was left neglected by the upstart organization. But this doesn’t stop Miller from turning to the tendencies in the writings of their most influential member Tom Hayden:

there is a constant tension between civic republicanism on the one had and existentialism on the other: when he follows Mills and his own teacher Arnold Kaufman, he depicts a world of orderly face-to-face discussion among responsible citizens; when he follows Camus and his own enthusiasm for the daring politics of direct action, he depicts a world of clashing wills and romantic heroes, mastering fate thought the hard assertion of personality. It is by no means evident that these images can be reconciled. The will to act can easily be sapped by endless debate. And thoughtful discussion is rarely advanced though heroics.

This tension in Hayden’s thinking suggests that the notion of participatory democracy involves not one, but two distinct political visions: the first is of a face-to-face community of friends sharing interests in common; the second is of an experimental collective, embarking on a high-risk effort to test the limits of democracy in modern life.” (p.146)

What Hayden was doing in his writings for the SDS was mixing these two opposing ideas for structuring human relationships without knowing it. One was a Quaker idea of small community members who both know each other and share the same belief structure, making decisions consensually in a direct-democracy of “rule-by-consensus”, and the other was a “kind of anarchism. Spurning all fixed doctrines and forms they exulted in discovery, improvisation, the drama of unpredictable innovation.” (p.147) This tension continue on unresolved but there lingers a characteristically philosophical motive in Miller’s analysis itself (he’s written extensively about philosophers as a historian after all) to get rid of the conceptual tension and exclude the middle. Could we not ask whether this tension need be resolved or whether it could continue on in a kind of tenuous energy generator for this rapidly growing ‘movement’? Heroes and rhetorical leaders could do the work of attracting new recruits and speaking loudly to the public, while the consensus rules could tighten up the ship and keep those individuals accountable to the larger group. As two tendencies within a single movement, they might complement each other rather than being oppositional and in need of reconciliation. The problem rises, however, when these two different attitudes, one warm and orderly and the other edgy and daring, are not capable of checking each others extremities and spiraling off in their own direction. That this tension is visible in both the behavioral and the literary aspect of SDS goes to show that, even for a group of self-styled intellectuals coming off the writing of a grand manifesto, a conceptual synthesis that could restrain and reinforce the opposites was missing. At least some sort of understanding of the two extremes at play within one’s own organization must be highlighted, so that the split does not drive a wedge through organization and wreck it before anyone knows what hit them.

This is a great tragedy for the left which somehow appears to have never been satisfactorily addressed. By allowing newcomers to leap into what they believed to be novel political organizing, while running into the same dead ends as those before them, the SDS opened up the space for old ideologies to reassert themselves by offering the theoretical rigor that the SDS left absent. The force of the theoretical rhetoric led participants into thinking that a new movement was upon them with new developments in social organization, while, as demonstrated by the SDS itself when it was infiltrated by Marxist-Leninists, these youngsters ironically gave an opening for the old and obsolete to reassert itself:

But Hayden’s disingenuousness at this critical juncture in the formation of the New Left would prove intellectual disastrous in the long run. It left the false impression of historical precedent and helped, as we shall see, to thicken rather than dispel the conceptual fog of rhetoric surrounding democracy. It fostered the illusion that fundamental issues of political theory had been addressed, and settled, when in fact matters of principle had scarcely been touched. It prompted the brightest young thinkers on the left in the years that followed to concentrate on strategy and economics and social issues, while the broader political vision of participatory democracy went largely unexamined. Because the vision was never codified and clarified and passed on as a formal doctrine of democracy, no shared approach to grappling with objections and difficulties was handed down. The final goal was left obscure. There was no emerging theoretical tradition to orient thinking and keep young activists from wandering up the same blind alleys over and over again, no clearly defined principles to forestall fundamental disagreements about what democracy ideally meant.” (p.152, emphasis added)

In an intellectual sense at least, the New Left would become a kind of staging ground for ideologies to continue their old debates. This was a new brand of old styles of thinking that in practice comes closest to anarchist direct action and creating a chaotic and shockingly spectacular scene to challenge authority. This “conceptual fog” would be the novelty, “democratically” giving any speaker the ability to turn any claim to political legitimacy on its head and claim to be doing politics. But wasn’t democracy already elaborated on by the likes of Rousseau and de Tocqueville? And weren’t these students merely asserting their right to engage with what has already been established? The furor over the lack of democracy in America was a hallmark of the SDS, so even though they lacked a clear vision of their own they made their antagonism to the present political structure abundantly clear. They held onto the tension of criticism without an alternative; the results would be a number of new tactics that would keep old ideas resurfacing and activist groups distanced from each other in their slices of the spectrum.

As a strategy of being within the left but autonomously so and champions of democracy but in a radical vs establishment version, SDS held onto a tension both within its theoretical position and outwardly in relation to the politics of the past. The conventional understanding was that by pushing democracy to a radical extreme, they would pull the rest of political spectrum with them – as if politics were a rope in a tug-of-war and one needed to do was tug harder on your end. This strategy only works when there is coordination within the left or right camp and at least an unspoken agreement to support the other more extreme side with which one shares a common base. Too much autonomy would cut the rope off and fracture what little solidarity was amongst the side as a whole. The strategy of agitation was and still is good at attracting attention, especially in the age of mass media, but the heat of militaristic marching and so forth could become too hot to handle. To unhesitatingly decry the liberal establishment yet attempt to draw it closer to you would end up backfiring: “It was never clear why, apart from succumbing to a fit of conscience, the liberal elite should promote experiments and reforms that were explicitly intended to diminish its power.” (p.182) In a negotiation, especially from an organization with mailing lists and planning meetings, one must make concessions and not just make threats.

It’s a point that could weigh heavily on the mind some 40-50 years after the fact. In decade after decade of neoliberal gains and worker wages and rights diminishing, even from policies enacted by the establishment democratic party, the unpatched rift with young radicals and the institutional left is suddenly glaringly obvious. All too often do we hear of idealistic young people making the rushed leap into politics, the crash of disappointment, and the embarrassment at looking back on the whole episode. In the face of discontented citizens’ groups organized on a consensus-style basis, much of what is called the culture-wars have been won by the left, while US imperialism and enshrining of corporate interests at the expense of workers harden their march within the halls of power relatively unabated. While it would be an exaggeration and plainly dishonest to lay the blame on the New Left and the SDS entirely, the reserve of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist seeking a way into politics all too often get spun around in old ideological quarrels, that is, when they haven’t managed to let the voice of anger break through into the mass media. Most of college campus organizing today is relegated to removing individuals from office in keeping with the antagonistic heritage that has become the now “establishment” posture of the new left; that plus winning space within the university for consensus experiments in “safe spaces.” How many people who have entered an organization of this kind with high hopes and dedication, only to quietly filter back into the status quo we’ll never exactly know.

Returning to the tension between the bravado of radical statements and the rule-by-consensus organization, we can see where these two tendencies developed in the course of the SDS movement. On the daring existential side, we can see the police riot that made a splash on television screens across the country with protesters chanting “the whole world is watching!” This interpretation of direct action was the more aggressive version than, say, setting up a protest camp without establishing lines of communication to city officials, and the marchers were by no means passive victims. One of the more illuminating parts of reading Democracy Is in the Streets is that a number of marches, rallies, and gatherings had taken place during the 3-day long convention and a malicious rapport had been established by the demonstrators with the police. Demonstrators had thrown rocks, bottles, and taunts at the cops who shouted back in return. “Fuck pigs, oink, oink!” were met with “Kill the Commies!”

““What had happened outwardly,” wrote one participant, “was that a bunch of people had gotten pushed around by a bunch of cops… But inwardly, what had happened to a lot of people… was that they had understood somehow that they were locked into this thing with the cops (and there was even a sense that it was a kind of drama – though a real drama), and that this was the beginning of it and that it was going to go on and get worse and be very ugly.”” (p.299-300)

There would be three more days of this for a total of four days and nights of skirmishes. On the night of day three, “the street fighting occurred on schedule, yielding 93 arrests, 9 damaged police vehicles and 7 injured policemen.” (p.301) The following day would be the televised attack, the culmination of half a week of aggressive protest near the DNC in Chicago.

And the saturated coverage on television had brought the existence of the New Left inescapably to the attention of all America.

But what had America seen? Was a crowd helplessly chanting in the midst of a police riot the image of participatory democracy? Was street fighting the seed of “a people’s movement”? Was this really what a generation’s moral revulsion against the Vietnam War and idealistic quest for “a democracy of individual participation” had come down to?” (p.305)

At this point the romantic-existential side of the schizophrenic movement shone forth and all of the drum-beating rhetoric of radical commitment had been unleashed in full view of the pubic. Locked in a kind of non-militaristic street battle, the marchers were taken over by the deterritorialized war marching urge but it was the purist anti-authoritarian rhetoric that had got them there. An historic event it would turnout to be, but the case could be made that the left has been in retreat ever since. It is this spectacle that allows someone like Juan Gonzalez to draw the conclusion that the country should hold its nose and vote for Hillary Clinton instead of pursue an alternative.

And then a year later, after the SDS had been infiltrated by the Leninists, a group of ultra-radical individuals formed an organization of their own called The Weather Underground. The Weathermen would go on to perform the Che Guevara-style guerrilla warfare in American cities by blowing up buildings and sending clandestine radio messages.

on the night of October 8, 1969, Hayden had addressed the Weathermen as they prepared to launch their first surprise guerrilla attack, again in Chicago. Armed with helmets, baseball bats and apparently bottomless reserves of arrogance and self-loathing, the Weathermen had assembled after nightfall in Lincoln Park, nerving themselves to smash through their bourgeois inhibitions and “tear pig city apart” in a “national action” they called “The Days of Rage.

Hayden had debated joining them.” (p.311)

I don’t need to write much more about were this would go, except that the overt assumption of violence as a tactic is mostly characteristic of an organization fresh out of ideas, grasping onto the last easiest method to assert a power that it knows itself to be losing: “the growing violence of the movement was defensive, reactive, without constructive purpose.” (p.306) Violence as a political tactic can surely win you power, but to call it a Pyrrhic victory for a group dedicated to an expansion and invigoration of democracy would be an understatement. Some revolutionaries will insist on using violence as merely a means to achieve power, from which they can rule much better than those ruling so in the present, but the track record of these instances is in the modern era is abysmal.

On the consensus side of the SDS tension there was far more success. Sharon Jeffrey would spearhead a breakout organization called the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) that would create experiments in communal-style living arrangements beginning in Cleveland. Aiming at the poor, underrepresented ghettos in major American cities she and other members of the SDS would spread the kind of participatory democracy that they had kind-of-sort-of envisioned. Meetings drew on for hours and many just could keep up with the patience needed for allowing every single person to vocally express their opinions on each topic before they moved on or decided on anything. However, out of these experiments would grow second-wave feminism and a more inclusive form of running meetings that many would come to view as more empowering than any other before it. Adopted from the small communities (in an indisputable use of the word ‘community’) of Quakers, rule-by-consensus in these ERAP groups put in an immense amount of effort into ensuring that all participants had a voice in the decisions made.

This form of organizing would survive and offer an immediate way for inspired newcomers to form themselves and make decisions. As a process for a small group of people who think alike, consensus-based rule is a new idea for the left, albeit one borrowed from another community. After the ERAP project fell apart, this form of organization would live on.

In the decades to come, experiments in participatory democracy would be launched by thousands of young people in dozens of different situations. Health clinics, law communes, free schools, feminist collectives, underground newspapers, drug-crisis centers, food co-opts, radical theater troupes – all would try their hand at direct democracy and rule-by-consensus, sometimes ingenuity and a surprising degree of success, sometimes with great difficulty and ultimately failure, but always with idealism and a sense of high hope. For countless young people, the political adventure called the New Left was just beginning. (p.216-217)

With such a diverse set of groups enacting consensus-based decision-making processes it would be wrongheaded to evaluate the idea singularly. The case of the SDS demonstrates the intense strain it puts on participants but also a high sense of accomplishment and degree ownership over the results. In Cleveland, ERAP taught neighborhoods (in spite of serious mental barriers) the inner working of local government, fostered local leaders, and in Newark organized successful rent strikes. (p.211) For an organization swelling with members though, this would create problems in burnout and cliquish behavior. The long meetings became a bigger burden than some could bear and the emphasis on direct experience within the meetings (a mystical ideal of “presence” and the reality of the community) made reproducing this model beyond those already actively participating near impossible. Taking notes and ensuring transparency to the greater SDS is extremely difficult in a meeting where free expression diverts the topics constantly. This requires a high level of dedication that is hard to maintain for the few organizers tasked with it, especially when removed from the highly-charged meetings where the decisions are made. On top of this, many were getting worried about the “elite—isolation—in-groupism… community can also be defined in terms of who is in and who is out.” So here is a tension that remains within the consensus model with respect to building a larger organization: the tendency to limit itself to a small group of those present at meetings (to those with the time and energy to spare) and the burnout that comes with keeping such a group transparent and accountable. It doesn’t surprise me that such a model is most successful in smaller groups who don’t have to answer to a greater institution.

So here we have some of the key traits of the New Left as displayed in their early stage through the Students for a Democratic Society. Their legacy still largely lives on today, together with their unresolved tensions and habits of conduct. While the term “participatory democracy” hasn’t survived as a rallying cry, democracy itself is still an unquestioned ideal and on the lips of every politician. While many are rightfully seeking a way to further their influence in the political decisions made beyond mere voting for representatives, experiments in encouraging democratic participation have mixed results. Building lasting institutions within the student movements has proven difficult and some might eschew the idea of an enduring institution altogether, opting instead for periodic moments of protest, issue-specific demonstrations, or waiting for revolutionary situations from which to cease power quickly. The common traits of the New Left have largely left a blank space with two extremes tendencies that organizations habitually fall into: aggressive/revolutionary rhetoric that whips-up marchers to fight against the police or target power-centers and the downsized consensus model that keeps organizations small, despite heightening the sense of friendship. At their best, mass actions avoid these extremes and a balance of power between the two keeps an even keel. Still, organizing for the long haul in the modern world entails institutions that persist beyond individual/clique interest and excitement.

The difference between mass movements and institutions does not need to be an either/or proposition. There is a strange kind of symbiotic relationship between the grassroots organizing that breaks through into the national consciousness with the force that gradualist institutions never could and the politics of authority that retains its power over the long term, trying its hand at altering government from the inside. No doubt, the relationship is tenuous when many will reject collaboration with the other side and call the absorption of popular mobilization’s rhetoric or tactics “capture” or “co-optation.” On the other hand, people can easily get fed up with the futility of strict adherence to principles of democracy that go so far as to take away all manifestations of power imbalances and/or result in tribalist confrontation with modern forces of authority. That there is a division that persists need not be a purely negative development: it is more helpful to view this division as the reemergence of human relations from the pre-modern world, if only briefly. Negotiating between this rift becomes paramount when disintegration and frustration risk a complete flight into conservative reverence for authority or the escape from politics altogether.

As it turns out, Tom Hayden, for all his tough talk about total commitment and the boldness to challenge the status quo, held contacts within the Democratic Party and had very practical things to say about winning votes and so forth: “In his writing he frequently reiterated the need for daring, boldness, courage and risk-taking; yet he hedged his own political bets, keeping lines of communication open to mainstream reform Democrats well after he had embraced the image of the guerrilla warrior.” (p.272) As a flamboyant writer who roused his readers into action, Hayden became a figurehead who was able to gain the ear of some prominent politicians. He spoke with the governor of Newark during their week-long riots that had seen looting mobs and an occupying national guard shooting at buildings. They tried to hash out a solution to the turmoil and Hayden’s delegitimizing mentality he had worked up over the years seemed to work: the next day New Jersey Governor Richard Hughes withdrew the national guard and the riots ended. They were very polite to each other and “aimed at persuasion”, but taking the hardline against the paramilitary force occupying the city netted the better negotiating position (p.275). Such a proposition for the functioning of a radical institution like the SDS sounds appetizing. It establishes a line of communication between autonomous groups and the centers of power in a way that would let both sides (and the people at large) reap the benefits. A similar positive result could be seen in Cleveland when ERAP taught whole neighborhoods how local government works and produced community leaders.

Nevertheless, the revolutionary furor that swept across the globe would overtake the SDS and push it back into the old ideological mode. From the successes of the Cuban revolution and Che Guevara’s popularity to the moral outrage over the atrocities in the Vietnam War to the cultural explosion of the sixties, the tide would turn against collaboration. The SDS had

veered sharply away from its original commitment to nonsectarian radicalism. For more than a year, SDS had been the target of a takeover attempted by the Progressive Labor Party, a Marxist-Leninist cadre of Maoists. With its disciplined, puritanical style and dogmatic commitment to create a dictatorship of the proletariat in America, the Progressive Labor faction stood against most of what once had defined the New Left as new. The Party’s show of revolutionary rigor nevertheless had a profound impact on the intellectual climate within SDS. “Sitting in an SDS gathering,” complained two veterans, had become “a hellish agony,” with “intellectualization and parliamentary manipulation” replacing “a sharing of experiences and consensus decision-making.” This was putting it mildly.” (p.285)

One could argue it was the intellectual vacuity of their “participatory democracy” non-credo slogan that paved the way for this kind of reassertion of the same problems that plagued the Old Left. Equally point to global developments and the heady feeling that a new era was coming and the time was ripe for world-wide revolution, which is beyond the scope of the SDS. These moments of world-historic opportunity will surely rise again and if the outcome is to truly be new then we must learn from the what was new and fresh in the New Left and what was a straight up failure.  Without education, each new generation will have to learn the same lessons of the previous one and get caught in a cycle of long-term impotence.

In the summation of Paul Booth (one of the few SDS organizers who tried and failed to solidify it into a “permanent institution” as it rose to popularity):

““The direct-action model for political influence was about speaking truth to power,” he says. “It was a theory that you could be influential because your thoughts were good and right, and you made the necessary sacrifices to get to a podium to speak. We didn’t start out with very good ideas about strategy, in part because the pacifist–direct-action people who influenced us weren’t into strategy, they were into witness. And then there were the academic influences, and they weren’t into strategy because they weren’t into activity. Unfortunately, the Old Left didn’t influence us: we viewed them as intellectually bankrupt. But they were the only people in the society who knew what mass action was, who knew what a mass organization was or how you worked in one.””

We can see the problem being one primarily of continuity between generations. To not repeat the same mistakes, the Left must now learn not just from the Old but the New Left as well – trying again at the New.  The point becomes, from the long-view of processes, to not let the passion of democracy vanish after a generation assimilates into modern society but let them share their experiences with the next.  The point becomes to avoid a situation like this: [Democrats will Learn all of the Wrong Lessons from Brush with Bernie], which in turn leads to a public so disillusioned about democratic change that it will turn to any ideological savior in the spotlight.


Miller, James, Democracy Is in the Streets. Simon and Schuster Inc., New York, New York, 1988.

The Function of Violence

Hannah Arendt has a short book called On Violence that appears to be the closest thing she ever wrote to a pamphlet or zine for mass distribution. In the middle of the book is a glossary of sorts for some key concepts that get thrown around in political discourse haphazardly: power, strength, force, authority, and violence. I understand her desire to set the matters straight on these words’ meaning as an attempt to prevent political actors, people willing to take meaningful and directed political action, from falling into ideologically sterile beliefs or patterns of behavior that would disable that political action from taking effect.

She begins, and this is significant, with an assessment of the political landscape during the cold war era and the mentality confronting a generation of people having grown up in a time when the world itself could vanish at any moment. This situation brought the high politics of international relations into the consciousness of common people in a way that only climate change could now, with the affect largely drawing on fear. The Berlin Wall was still up and the narrative of two competing superpowers with opposing and irreconcilable modes of governing still prevailed and the capitalist west was set apart from the communist east. Mutually assured destruction of every human world (in her own sense of the word ‘world’) had become the culmination of a century of technological innovation in war-making and previously unthinkable slaughter. A single decision by a group of men in identical suits sitting in a dark room that the public has never seen could end everything. It was in this setting that Arendt sets about to enable her readers to think, to traverse the conceptual landscape of political and economic philosophy that constitutes the heritage bequeathed to us and find a way forward.

After setting the historical stage, we get some treatments of some political trends including the fantasy of unending progress and economic growth, the function of war in politics, and the effect of Marxism on revolutionary thought. But I would prefer to dive right into her glossary of terms to come to grips with their specific deployment. Each of these five terms has a unique meaning and they never seem to form some kind of order or hierarchy, so it is important that we grasp each on its own.

First, in her own words:

Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say that someone is “in power” we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name…

Strength unequivocally designates something in the singular, an individual entity; it is the property inherent in an object or person and belongs to its character, which may prove itself in relation to other things or persons, but is essentially independent of them….

Force… should be reserved, in terminological language, for the “forces of nature” or the “force of circumstances”… that is, to indicate the energy released by physical of social movements.

Authority[‘s]… hallmark is unquestioning recognition by those who are asked to obey; neither coercion nor persuasion is needed… To remain in authority requires respect for the person or the office. The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.

Violence, finally as I have said, is distinguished by its instrumental character. Phenomenologically, it is close to strength, since the implements of violence, like all other tools, are designated and used for the purpose of multiplying natural strength until, in the last stage of their development, they can substitute for it.” (p44-46)

So, power only exists in human plurality, such that some have the ability to reorganize the community taken as a whole and have more freedom to act on it than others. The existence of power necessitates inequality in a group of people, or the reverse. Strength is an attribute of an individual, with some people being physically stronger than others by fact of nature or training. Strength is a physical property of a body. Force is relational and between bodies, a rather mechanistic term that’s close to ‘energy.’ Force can be imposed on others by acting together and doesn’t necessarily mean the enactment of blunt trauma. Authority seems the most cultural and least natural of the five, with it largely being the result of rituals and positions held by a person but within institutions. Neither force nor violence nor even strength should be required to maintain authority, and when those means are called upon to keep authority it is a sign that that authority is diminishing. Violence is a tool. Like technology, violence is implemented by someone and against another for a purpose. In other words, violence is only ever a means to an end and never an end in itself.

And there we have it. These terms are the common expression of thought in times of political uncertainty, that is, when authority is crumbling or power is breaking down. In the situation of a rebellion, war, or revolution (or the mass protest that always raise their prospect), we are suddenly thrown into an assortment of forces that require navigation through. Her point is that we have no easy path which shows itself immediately upon attaching oneself to any of these terms, whatever destination one may believe themselves to be traveling toward. The only consistent privilege Arendt ever seems to give is for a situation in which political action remains possible, the term ‘action’ being something with a specific meaning which I will explain later.

I take it that Arendt’s book is primarily aimed at Maoists of her era and other revolutionary Marxists searching for the right strategy to realize their political dreams, some of which having momentarily settled on violence as the cure-all. If only enough people are convinced that the true form of power is the violence inherent in the system (so the rationale goes), then a counter-violent force will coalesce and a revolution can take place, with power transferring from the capitalist to the socialists. The violence of capitalism is all around us and if we don’t push back with the most radical political action they can conceive, then capitalist violence will continue, say the fired-up communists. But as we receive from Arendt, the lesson here is that power and violence are not the same thing, nor does violence compose the power bloc entirely (like a collection of atoms compose an object). This is the ideological error of materialism that has survived in many forms since the dawn of philosophy, but gained a popular traction on the left since the Marxists took over the theoretical high ground on the left sometime in the late nineteenth century.

The materialist temptation is to reduce these list of terms to one term and place that one term at the ground, holding up all of the others. The mechanical nature of force, its near-equation with energy, allows it a place in the realm beyond or underneath the human and its community. With force as our basic concept hiding behind all of the others we can dawn the lab-coat and appear as a scientist that devises strictly neutral laws of nature. Armed with a materialistic ideology (a word, ‘ideology’ that can be used anytime you here someone repeat the same concepts over and over again, seeking to explain all of your ideas within the terminology of their own), we gain in prestige or mass appeal what we loose in strategic assessment of a political arrangement. Violence or the threat of potential violence is not the only force running through the field of power and keeping people in power.

Authority does not require fear but can be won in persuasion and/or skillful maneuvering, although no more convincing at all is needed when achieved. Authority is even here defined as a lack of coercion, such that one can gain authority only by seeming to be worthy of trust, believability, etc. and not merely relying on force. When such violent measures are resorted to, one in power suddenly looks naked in that power: one loses authority and draws the contempt of the people that such power is being exerted on. Authority is lost and power looks isolated, cut off from the support and respect which it required in order to achieve that power. No doubt, power can still be maintained without authority and the standards that authority “rests on” may shift to the point where authority is lost to part of a constituency but not all, but power ruling over people (or simply manipulating them to act someway instead of another) can’t survive long without authority and its accompanied respectability and admiration.

The point Arendt is making goes to her political predicament and (if the situation of the cold war is not so far away from the situation now in America) ours: we cannot just rely on an escalation of confrontation to win political power. Those who insist on this kind of brute materialist analysis wouldn’t know what to do with the power they had won if they had been gift-wrapped it and not had to fight for it at all. And there are such groups, typically anarchists, who have brought the radical left discourse to this point (Tiqqun, The Invisible Committee, and the rest of the smorgasbord that make up ultra-radicals). It is only logical that anarchists would be willing to go this far because, aside from their not total but very common ideological materialism, they claim to be a force entirely concerned with counter or anti-power. Communists, on the other hand, are all-too-willing to use whatever tools available to gain power in the fight against capitalism and anarchists, despite their fierce historical opposition to them, open the way for the seizure of power by the next-most organized authority ready to jump at the opportunity. The historical and linguistic similarities between these two traditions are the undeniable heritage of anti-capitalism and left-Hegelianism in Europe, disputes aside.

Power and authority does not disappear when you evacuate the current factions, parties, or institutions holding power of their force or their means of implementing violence. This is the materialist fallacy of treating force and violence as coextensive with trauma and the infliction of pain; forces are not atoms nor are they the relations between the atoms holding them together, such that reorganizing them into a different shape will also eliminate power. People organized effectively will “give off” a force that can alter, suspend, or overthrow power, but the potential for this force to exude itself only exists when people are compelled to resist or disobey. Power falls apart and leaves in its death a vacuum when a critical threshold of people lose confidence, respect, or consent towards those in power, or, in other words, when power loses its authority and must resort to violence. What makes presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald trump so popular now in the internet age of finance capitalism is the large number of people who disapprove of their leaders but are suddenly feeling the effects of their horrendous leadership leading up to and after the financial collapse and subsequent bailout of corrupted money institutions. The revelations that the massive outgrowth of technologies surrounding the internet has been accompanied by a massive surveillance and loss of media-ted freedom has also contributed to a spiteful, though atomized response. With these actions the American government has lost authority, so that the most popular presidential candidates across the political spectrum can call for drastic action and use revolutionary rhetoric. The amount of authority still remaining can be quantified by polls and surveys only imperfectly.

The moment that many people are waiting for now, the great event that hope turns toward to reverse its fortunes, is here defined as the moment when power has completely lost its authority and when the violence becomes overt and visible. The time of the event, the time of kairos, the outpouring of activity that subverts all power and ushers in ‘the new’ could very easily get caught in this stage of violence in the waning hours of power’s grip. If all the preparation that is made is military in style, then it will be too easy for those insisting on violence as a means for revolution to lose the authority they falsely believed they never needed anyways and be crushed. Violent action taken against a power actually has the ability to become ensnared into a game that feeds such a power, diminishing and devoid of authority though it may be, with ample justification for its own police or domestic violence. Or otherwise, as Arendt puts it,

“Disintegration often becomes manifest only in direct confrontation: and even then, when power is already in the street, some group of men prepared for such an eventuality is needed to pick it up and assume responsibility.” (p49)

Staying at this level of street fighting and becoming fixated on the enemy in proximity opens up the way for a change in power, but who or what group plucks that power out of the streets and convinces the people that they are worthy of positions of authority is uncertain. This opening up of possible regime change intensifies the situation and raises the excitement level, but only those prepared to grab and hold onto power will come out with it. A second look into the revolutions of Egypt from 2011 and the current civil war in Syria exemplify the dangers of prolonged street fighting can take on a state, from within and without.

In times like these, power is effectively lost when its command structure disintegrates. The giving and accepting of commands is a major component for the instrumental use of violence, and must be presupposed by those with power in order that they maintain their power. But a power that has lost authority increases the likelihood that those receiving the commands will falter. Commands are like contracts that people believe will be honored but can only make referrals to laws, force, and character when they come to collect; when the structures that ensure such contracts or commands have lost the respect of the people, everything can change in a “flash.”

“In a contest of violence against violence the superiority of the government has always held absolute; but this superiority lasts only as long as the power structure of the government is intact – that is, as long as commands are obeyed and the army or police forces are prepared to use their weapons. When this is no longer the case, the situation changes abruptly. Not only is the rebellion not put down, but the arms themselves change hands – sometimes, as in the Hungarian revolution, within a few hours.” (p48)

These moments of power-loss bring about the prospect for a new form of government, where new ideas are given a space and new constitutions can be drawn up. None of these things can happen if the arms once used to repress peoples continue to remain with the government and their users obey commands. When the thrust of one’s political activity is reduced to violence mixed with some vague notions about ideal human life (or some exact notions about how to run an economy from 150 years ago), the authority of the existing power is reinforced not challenged and the potential for a new power will remain untapped. The public opinion of a people becomes the ultimate arbiter in these instances.

“The sudden dramatic breakdown of power that ushers in revolutions reveals in a flash how civil obedience – to laws, to rulers, to institutions – is but the outward manifestation of support and consent.” (p49)

This “support and consent” is not so easily detectable but it is easily observable in daily life. When or where the threshold is crossed from acquiescence to rebellion is not definable in an analytic way but becomes apparent in a mass event, a non-localized disobedience. In other words, a small group of people is not going to incite an insurrection but can seize power once that general disobedience and loss of authority has taken place. A situation of major power-loss and potential transition is a mass phenomenon that the great majority takes part in. Without this vast critical majority, any revolutionary practice is powerless, and this lack of power (just like with regimes losing their power by losing their authority) is what leads them to turn towards violence.

And power itself is not even won through war-like victories, where one force overcomes another and so seizes power. Gaining and keeping power is a group phenomenon that should not be confused with one army conquering another army. “Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than from any action that then may follow.” The violence that power deploys where it sees fit is but its instrument for maintaining that power it won not from battles but from acting and organizing itself prior to its seizure of power. When power is attempted to be gained by violent means, what we get is not a power but a terrifying obedience of people like they were soldiers or enemies. Violence: its commands, its obedience, and its fear are not suited for rule of a government in the same way as power is, which is where we get the totalitarian rule of terror.

“Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What never can grow out of it is power…

Rule by sheer violence comes into play where power is being lost… To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power.” (p53)

The confusion of violence’s alliance with power for another principle, namely, that power is nothing but a control of violence, leads us down a troubling path – one that extents the operations of violence even further than the street battles within which violence takes place. The organization of violence and the organization of government are two separate creatures that ally with each other for their own mutual survival; a violence having completely severed itself from power and overtaken it can rule only according to its own organizational axioms. When everything looks like either an enemy or a subordinate to direct with the force of fear, government is transformed into rule by terror. Ignoring power’s cooperative operation and its legitimacy in the eyes of those it rules could be disastrous. To ignore the need for a plan within the designs of the powerful and a method for running the government once power is attained is to create a power vacuum that is too easily filled by violence.

“Terror is not the same as violence; it is, rather, the form of government that comes into being when violence, having destroyed all power, does not abdicate but, on the contrary, remains in full control. It has often been noticed that the effectiveness of terror depends almost entirely on the degree of social atomization… The decisive different between totalitarian domination, based on terror, and tyrannies and dictatorships, established by violence, is that the former turns not only against its enemies but against its friends and supporters as well, being afraid of all power, even the power of its friends. The climax of terror is reached when the police state begins to devour its own children, when yesterday’s executioner becomes today’s victim. And this is also the moment when power disappears entirely.” (p55)

This situation of totalitarian terror is one that few will remember at the time of writing, 2016, or could. It comes to us like a relic in a time where capitalist power has outlasted its internal and geopolitical opponents but also as perennial justification for the capitalist powers. But it could also come to us as a reminder how quickly things can disintegrate into cycles of violence and terror if we hold onto materialistic notions of the identity of power and force – or at least their difference being only one of degree.

So, violence and force are not the same as power and power is not composed of accumulation of forces or a mere monopoly on violence.

“To sum it up: it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance.” (p56)

Power only relies on violence as a means to keep that power, but is not its essence. When power is kept in possession solely through the use of violence, people tend not tolerate such a power and it loses authority. In those situations when the authority of power is lost, commands are disobeyed and changes in power become possible, or at least more likely. As violence rages on and conquers all of its enemies, it turns the power of government into terror. A power won not through violence but through acting together in concert, forming a strategic plan and proclaiming themselves in public, is a power capable of legitimate rule by general consent of the governed. Such consent, Arendt will argue, is not the mere result of coercion or an acquiescence; the minds of the people are given more agency than they would have as mere subjects of a sovereign.

“This implies that it is not correct to think of the opposite of violence as non-violence; to speak of non-violent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.” (p56)

Somewhere early on in a political action, which Arendt defines as necessarily being an initiative that starts something new, the old debate rears its ugly head and a decision will have to be made on the ready-made and easy-to-use media template: “Are you violent or non-violent?”. The decision is a forced decision in Arendt’s terminology because the use of violence in an instrumental means to an ends does not exist in the civilian resisting violence and fighting back. Such resistance or reactive counter-attack against the organized and instrumental violence of the police or military has no clear instrumental use but the mere expression of outrage. The hastily labeled “violent protester” or the emblazoned headlines of “protest turns violent” are abuses of the word; violence is only a tool, a means to an ends, and to charge protesters of being an organized force explicitly deploying violence to seek some end is to vastly overestimate their force.

The word is being used here as a media device to discredit an action and bolster the authority for a power. The selective deployment of the word instills confusion in the reader and makes the whole affair look like a skirmish where neither force is to blame and it was another instance of natural forces colliding against each other. Two violent forces that await a victor and the defeated. In actuality, someone or some powerful group decided that a political action challenged their authority and put their power at risk, so they made use of the violence at their disposal. Without a power backing it, such counter violence is ensnared into the trap that the dominant power has set for it, unable to overcome it by force. “Politically speaking, the point is that loss of power becomes a temptation to substitute violence for power…” (p54)

No doubt, some will be inclined to provoke this violence: a kind of drawing out of the violence into public for the purpose of depleting a power’s authority in the eyes of the population. This often goes by the name “non-violent direct action” and has shown its effectiveness in various political campaigns, especially since the advent of mass media to make visible to the rest of the public the use of violence by a power. While effective, the label is misleading and a semantic impasse has developed where the strategy’s authority has grown so large that the media has borrowed its own terminology and selectively deploys its opposite. Like falling into the trap of street battling with a more powerful force, taking sides on this issue has become a means for reducing a popular force through division. But, again, this is a forced choice largely imposed by the forces of the media and internalized by its readers/viewers. Taking the extreme side too quickly produces the ideological weapon of “propaganda by the deed” which hopes to incite further act of violence in a less organized fashion (it hasn’t ever worked) and those led into the ideological error of valorizing violence as I have been addressing throughout this essay. Unleashing this violence, one that obeys commands (else it remains impotent) can be very effective at achieving its goals. In other words, be careful what you wish for.

What Arendt can teach us with this small book is that power is never achieved this way, at least not for long and not without much regret when all is said and done.  What holds up power is more than violence and defeating power with little more than a superior force using violence is no means for creating a new power.  There is more involved in the complicity of a people for a particular power than fear of violence.  This makes the struggle for authority and the general consent of the people a more important battleground than the streets, especially for the intellectually minded.


Arendt, Hannah. On Violence.  Harcourt Books, 1970.

Foucault Talks Anarchism

A brief remark from Foucault on Anarchism.  On January 30th 1980, in the College de France lecture publication titled On the Government of the Living, Foucault again sought to distance himself from an ideological form of analysis and insists that he is doing an analytics of power.  It’s a kind of love/hate relationship though.  He will reference his own work as an “anarcheology”, adding the ‘an’ prefix in a kind of playful way to denote an edgy critical stance, as well as referencing Paul Feyerabend’s book Against Method, in which Feyerabend describes a history of science in which there is no common structure to the development of scientific knowledge and “anything goes.”  His resistance to the label ‘anarchy’ comes from a resistance to ideology as a way for explaining phenomena and interpreting history. Anarchy is about resistance to power if it is anything, but Foucault resists the term itself for not going far enough in its understanding of power, namely, that there is different kind of power working upon or within us that ideological attachment cannot resolve.

What Foucault is doing is something different: he is seeking to maintain an understanding of power that does not construct an edifice from which then others can then repeat and then become “followers”.  In both style and substance, Foucault resists the kind of theorizing that would place him as an advisor to a sovereign or an official participating in the administered ruling of a land.  Having acquired an immense amount of fame himself, he has learned to be wary of the kind of thinking that would allow others to ascribe him to a leadership role in some ‘movement.’  His aim is not to acquire subjects but to unravel the techniques of power that form subjects, creating subjects to be ruled out of routine practices imposed on bodies.  It fits into his project for that year’s lecture series: analyzing how subjects are formed, how they will be made to affirm a truth about themselves (sin, confession, etc.), and how subjectivization allows power to reach farther down into bodies than it ever had before.  This lecture series will focus on Christianity and the techniques it has invented, which are still very much with us.

First comes his opposition to ideology:

“I have insisted on this rejection of ideological analysis many times…  And this leads me to something like a sort of secret, which is that for me theoretical work… does not consist in establishing and fixing the set of positions on which I would stand and supposedly coherently link between which would form a system.  My problem, or the only theoretical work that I feel is possible for me, is leaving the trace, in the most intelligible outline possible, of the movements by which I am no longer at the place where I was earlier.  Hence, if you like, this constant need, or necessity, or desire to plot, so to speak, the points of passage at which each displacement risks resulting in the modification, of not of the whole curve, then at least of the way in which it can be read and grasped in terms of its possible intelligibility.  This plotting, consequently, should never be read as the plan of a permanent structure.” (p76)

Foucault is describing his method here and the caution that he takes in avoiding the reception of his work as a stable system.  The trajectory he is on passing through various points, the points he plots on a graph for posterity, these do not form a whole picture.  His research program is one in which he jumps from topic to topic, reinventing himself each time and breaking the limitations that the topic imposes.  He leaves a trace each time and you could tell a story about his movement from one to another, but what he resists is the entrapment of having a doctrine imposed on his work.

Foucault scholars have long noted three phases in Foucault’s career, with this particular lecture series marking the passage from the second to the third.  He will move from the analysis of disciplinary power, confinement and separation in the second phase (with a kind of interlude in governmentality and economic rationality we could put into this phase) to an analysis of subjectivization, that is, the way in which subjects are made to exercise power themselves with institutional support.  This third phase always interested me the most as a student because it seemed like a new way of interpreting subjectivity and thinking through the breakdown of individual in modern society.  This problem was wrestled with in existentialism and other post-Nietzschean philosophical moments, but Foucault better than any of them was able to grasp a serious problem at the heart (or near the heart) of the present: the dissolution of the self in the wake of the ubiquitous use of techniques of power on/within the self.  He’s able to do this by not remaining fixated on the subject as it is related to the object, pondering the deep structure of language, or how experience factors into knowledge; instead he will do a modified version of historical analysis (genealogy) and assume that power works in devious and subtle methods that can be revealed underneath history in its minute details, with ideas like ‘subjectivity’ included.

And so we have this intellectual who has forged a new way to think about ourselves and look at how power is exercised, one who became immensely famous and attracted all kinds of popular attention.  Why does he resist ideology so adamantly?

“You can see that this form of analysis… rests more on a standpoint than a thesis.  But this is not exactly the standpoint of, say, the epoche, of skepticism , of the suspension of all certainties or of all thetic positions of the truth.  It is an attitude that consists, first in thinking that no power goes without saying, that no power whatever kind, is obvious or inevitable, and that consequently no power warrants being taken for granted.  Power has no intrinsic legitimacy.” (p77)

His “standpoint” is such that it has led him to question and diagnose every kind of power, not to religiously seek out and undermine every kind of power in all of their manifestations but definitely to be free of the kind of power that he himself exerts on himself and others.  So Foucault has this attitude towards power that makes him so thoroughly suspicious of the workings of power that it becomes self-critical: he will question his own power and take care not to become an enduring, powerful figure.  His own reluctance to become a figurehead of powerful repute, such that disciples will form around him and repeat his words and terms verbatim, is almost a necessary component for the topic he will be studying and lecturing on: the history of subjectivization.  Checking his own power as a public intellectual will ‘rub off on’ those who are listening and studying his own works, they will then be more inclined to unearth the deeper forces acting on and within their own bodies and become attuned to ways in which power is inscribed in their very selves.  Their is a way in which power works upon us in ways that we think are our own but have been tempered and refined by a very long history of rituals, public theological debates, and published works.

Appeals will be made to truth, objectively true things, and the neutrality of things that simply and plainly ‘are’ or ‘exist’ (being).  Foucault will go deeper and it is this feature that has kept him studied by philosophy students.  This background of resisting power within Foucault preempts this though, that he would not be satisfied until he could see the power at work within this knowledge and the forces at play that bring this truth about.

“But given my desire, decision, and effort to break the bond that binds me to power, what then is the situation with regard to the subject of knowledge and the truth?  It is not the critique of representations in terms of truth or error, truth or falsity, ideology or science, rationality or irrationality that should serve as indicator for defining the legitimacy or denouncing the illegitimacy of power.  It is the movement of freeing oneself from power that should serve as revealer in the transformations of the subject and the relation the subject maintains with the truth.” (p77)

We can glimpse this public intellectual’s grasping for the general thrust of what he is doing with his intellect: Foucault the thinker is himself trying to break free from powers working on him.  We could almost say, “okay, it is now up to you viewer whether to continue resisting this deep subjectivizing power.”  If you don’t have the desire to break free, as he does, then you can go on your merry way.  Such would be to continue on as if power was not there all along, its history not conditioning the decisions we felt we owned, and voluntarily ignoring his history of subjectivity.  But if we do accept that historical forces have crept into our basic understanding of ourselves and condition our decisions, then choosing not to absorb some measure of Foucault’s idea, upon entering his thought process somehow or another, can no longer be interpreted as voluntary.  This puts the reader in a bind.  We don’t have to follow him (he doesn’t want us to anyways) but we no longer seem to own that decision.

This might be a source of anxiety or confusion if we take this line of thought to its extreme.  Instead of my own will, I now only have little power techniques pulling me this way or that, determining my destiny.  This is of course a reaction we need not settle on, for the representationalist “it’s either there or it’s not, it either exists or it doesn’t” conceptualization of subjectivity still lingers.  This is precisely what Foucault is trying to move away from.  He feels the need to break away from deep structures on power, others will too.  This is only the beginning, but it allows for a flexibility which will attune readers and listeners to coming struggles.  There may be a time (now?) when subjective identification will be a hindrance, a blockage preventing us from maneuvering through complex spaces of power.

On to anarchism.  Foucault posits the one who objects all by himself, possibly a reflection of people who have responded to his work without approval, by saying:

“You will tell me: there you are, this is anarchy; it’s anarchism.  To which I shall reply: I don’t quite see why the words “anarchy” or “anarchism” are so pejorative that the mere fact of employing them counts as a triumphant critical discourse.  And second, I think there is even a certain difference.” (p78)

So Foucault is defending anarchism as a term first of all, at least not to let it be used as an easy negative that critics can level at intellectuals or whoever.  But he is also claiming to do something different.  This will relate back to his aversion to ideology:

“…if we define anarchy by two things – first, the thesis that power is essentially bad, and second, the project of a society in which every relation of power is to be abolished, nullified – you can see that what I am proposing  and talking about is clearly different.  First, it is not a question of having in view, at the end of a project, a society without power relations.  It is a matter of putting non-power or the non-acceptability of power, not at the end of the enterprise, but at the beginning of the work,  in the form of a question of all the ways  in which power is in actual fact accepted.  Second, it is not a question of saying all power is bad, but of starting from the point that no power whatsoever is acceptable by right and absolutely and definitively inevitable… In other words, the position I adopt does not absolutely  exclude anarchy… but you can see that in no way does it entail it, that it does not cover the same field, and is not identified with it.” (p78)

Anarchists have made use of Foucault’s work in the past, while some have reacted negatively towards it.  This isn’t such a great concern for him as his work was not meant for the enactment of a political program but research program.  He wants to be free from power and finds it at work inside the very subject who would say: “I am an anarchist.”  One could make this identification, utter the words as a vow or a mark of affiliation, and still accept Foucault’s lessons on subjectivization – it isn’t even clear to me that anarchism has been delineated beyond opposing the state.  In fact, the similarities are such that Foucault will have some fun at this lecture on January 30th, 1980 and call his project an “anarcheology”:

“The anarcheological type of study, on the other hand, consisted in taking the practice of confinement in its historical singularity, that is to say in its contingency, in the sense of its fragility, its essential non-necessity, which obviously does not mean (quite the opposite!) that there was no reason for it and is to be accepted as a brute fact.” (p79)

So his historical study of the radical contingency of past events, the wrenching free from a determinism that often accompanies history is something that current, former, or potentially anarchic people can make use of.  This anarcheology (a cute-for-being-clumsy word to write) will likely have resonance for people troubled by the residue of historical materialism and technological determinisms seeking to lead the people to the promised land.

Foucault’s resistance to power runs very deep and it leads him in the last part of his career to look into Christianity’s legacy on individuals.  From this novel type of power that reshaped western or European culture so long ago, we can learn what some of the roadblocks are that are keeping people constrained in their routines, ‘locked up inside themselves’ as it were.  But instead of moving from one ideology to the next, or using this technique to start up a new one, Foucault’s “standpoint” keeps the reader critical and self-critical of the things that hold us back from moving on.

Forgive me, that was not very brief.

‘What Is Grounding?’ Deleuze’s Journey through the History of Philosophy

In this early 1956-1957 lecture previously unavailable to the public, Gilles Deleuze takes his students through a tour of the history of philosophy by using the red thread of the notion ‘grounding.’ What Is Grounding’ is unsurprisingly insightful and sweeping in scope, explaining the general thrust of many canonical philosophers and how the concepts of each prepares the way for the philosophers that follow them, forming a single story. The big attention-grabber for these lectures for those well-read in Deleuze’s oeuvre is that finally a published work in which he “positions” himself with respect to other famous philosophers of his day or era, especially Martin Heidegger. We also get a discussion of Hegel and his placement within the history of philosophy. But emphasis on this common thread of ‘Grounding’ has much more to reveal about the obsessive work of European philosophers than taking names and claiming lines of affiliation.

One can imagine Deleuze speaking in a conference room to a room packed full of youthful french intellectuals (the translator tells us that by the time they were given, “Deleuze’s lectures were already ‘must-see events’”) and moving from one philosopher to the next, jumping from the enclosed territory of one great thinker to the next in summary fashion with the audience desperately trying to keep up with his torrential pace. These kind of exercises in the imagination are fit for invoking too, for right at the beginning we get a foreshadowing of Deleuze’s trajectory in the project of ‘What Is Grounding?’: weaving through the “infinite task” that philosophy has set out for itself and not so much untangling it as passing through it with constant motion and remaining untangled in any one of its locations.

You can get a copy [here]

We have barely begun and already we learn that the beginning of the lecture was lost. I’m inclined to think that this is a deliberate joke that has been put over on the reader, but it is entirely plausible that in the 1950’s the tape recorder was not set up in time. It’s unfortunate, because he began with mythology and its “foundational heroes” according to the footnotes. So immediately we have the missing beginning of a lecture on philosophy that is not philosophical, instead it is a mythological prompt for the incoming great names of the history of philosophy who attempt to distinguishes themselves from the great names of mythology. Philosophers will perform a different task, attempt the construction of a work that is not involving fictional beings and unreal creatures, theirs (and Deleuze’s also, he unabashedly claims to be within the philosophical tradition) will be real. The thoughts composing the work(s) of philosophy will be real – resting on sure ground. But we don’t get to this distinction so easily: thought must first of all seek to be free of something and start something new, something otherwise.

Thought must be wrenched apart from the functions and reasons of the ceremony and the ritual. Those binding agents that keep a people together, that mark the body and place it into a symbolic regime that forms the body of the tribe or culture. Set at a distance from the ritual, thought will eventually come to realize natural ends. It is tempting to regard the tribal/ritual as the natural, whereas the progression into civilization would detach us from the natural, from the integrated earth cycles, but realizing nature was never a task that would have made any sense to a ‘primitive person’ (so conceived by the educated). With the coming of philosophy we get a proliferation of distinctions; nature or natural ends somewhere along the line of time became distinct from the ceremonies and rituals of culture.

“On the one hand, the human being can realize natural ends, but at the same time, does it not produce something in itself by virtue of being human? It transforms the natural ends. What is the function of a ceremony and of a ritual? It is distinct from a natural end.” (p13)

So we have natural ends which we as humans can realize if we make an attempt, but the culture by which humans must operate within is something distinct from it. Every ritual has a natural consequence and cannot be extricated from nature, yet here we are with this distinction between the natural ends and cultural ends. This distinction is persistent and the reunification of the two “back into nature” is not some place we can suddenly leap back into: a synthesis is always something new and the stakes of our cultural games are never very far from the positing of a holistic entity or an original point of unity. This will turn out to be a major lesson from these lectures: the project of grounding is an “infinite task” (p14), the realization of natural ends within the realm of human culture is an infinite task. It is a task with many rewards (just think about the many successes of modern science) but one which Deleuze’s thinks is never-ending; we only get a plurality of natural ends for all of our efforts.

Natural ends will be sought after by the philosopher in their reality; a philosopher “realizes”, remaining unsatisfied with fine speeches, mythical tales, and other products of culture. The philosopher seeks no less than the reality of nature and this sets them off on an infinite task, which I take to mean it is a task that will never be completed: “the transformation of natural ends into cultural ends renders them infinite.” (p14) So we readers get something new with the philosopher, but this something new comes with a price, or with strings attached (to attempt an avoidance of commercial language). Deleuze allows for a distinction between philosophy and mythology, between those who attempt to realize nature and those who wish to recite stories that reinforce the lessons of culture, but one that is a marked by a difference in task. We don’t get to say, in that triumphant way that both science and philosophy often does, that everything before it was superstition and ‘mere myth’, as if the new method was superior in its progression. The difference is one of endeavors, the purpose or motive of the person taking up a project.

“If, then, mythology is the imaginary, it is because infinite tasks are not to be realized. Mythology presents us this state of infinite tasks which ask us for something else than their realization.”

In that pre-socratic way of philosophizing, we have the striving for natural ends in the attempt at finding something in nature which everything else can be reduced to. The elements of fire, water, air, earth, and even (or perhaps not) mind (nous) each take their turns in claiming the status of elemental substance of nature. Here we are searching for natural ends and using rational arguments to achieve these ends, but something qualitatively different happens when reason enters the picture, or should I say, the ends of reason:

“But natural ends are not yet ends of reason. They are values, sentiments which are felt and lived. Then what will we have to call reason? If, for their part, natural ends present themselves for realization, this time it will be infinite tasks which demand to be realized. They will become the proper end of reason. This is what happens when thought commits itself to realizing itself.” (p15)

Deleuze just breezes by this and moves on to the notion of grounding, but I cannot help to pause and appreciate the brevity of this opening remarks to a long lecture. The natural ends exist before and without any help from humans accumulating knowledge about them. However, when these natural ends are presented by humans and concepts are formed, culture is faced with infinite tasks. They will become the concepts of thought which seek realization, but realizing objects of thought within nature is an infinite task. This isn’t to say it is impossible to realize natural ends, or that we have come to reason by some primal error; Deleuze is only saying that the task of realization is infinite.

But then suddenly, right in the middle of the paragraph, reason, the means by which these ends are meant to be reached, is folds back on itself and, instead of reaching a single end, reaches for the infinite tasks themselves instead of natural ends. For we are in the realm of thought with the realization of natural ends, and somewhere or somehow, infinite tasks will replace natural ends for realization. Realizing natural ends is already an infinite task, but infinite tasks will become that which “demand to be realized” when “thought commits itself to realizing itself.” The ends of reason take on a new life apart from the natural ends.

Kant and Hegel will be the first names to appear and they are brought in to demonstrate the act of thought trying to realize itself, or the entrance of infinite tasks into realization.

“Kant and Hegel say that the will contemplates itself of rises to the absolute when it is the will to freedom. In this will to freedom there is the activity of being reasonable, which consists in realizing the infinite task… The grounder is then the one who poses and proposes an infinite task… To ground is to raise nature to the level of history and of spirit. All who propose values to us appeal to a ground… From the moment when the grounder proposes infinite tasks to us as something to be realized in this world itself.” (P16)

‘To ground’ is the act of realizing infinite tasks instead of realizing natural ends (or any other ends, but is as a result of the project to realize natural ends that the infinite task appears). The infinite task itself comes to be the object of realization. An object of thought that set itself apart from mythology, story, gods, etc. ‘doubled back’ on itself, as it were, and became something new: an infinite task that seeks reason itself as end (vs. as means to natural ends) and places reason where natural ends once were. Whereas natural ends once were brought into culture with the use of reason, reason itself took their place when a natural ground is sought for culture ends. “Reason as supreme end could only present itself to the extent that the infinite tasks themselves become things to be realized.” (p18)

We then move on to values and will for the last short segment of part one.

“The notion of value” says Deleuze, switching gears most unexpectedly, “has been created by Nietzsche in The Will to Power. For him there is no truth, there are only evaluations. To affirm that everything is value is to present a mystification which must be destroyed. Whence Nietzsche’s polemic.” (p.18)

We come back to Kant by way of the will:

“The infinite task as value was a content of the will. It concerned something else than a simple desire. To love is first of all to want. On the level of values, the will had a content exterior [and] heteronomous to it (Kant).”

But then, the will is extracted from what it wants, its content, and is allowed to double back on itself. The will will desire itself. To praise or blame, to hold in esteem or abhor, in other words to value we first desire. But Kantian values and other values that hold to the notion of grounding will be different, they will turn inward:

“These values to be realized take on their particular figures because the will becomes autonomous. It is a will which wants nothing else than itself. A will which wants nothing but its own content. Autonomy is presented as universality. It is exactly Kant’s autonomous will.” (p19)

For a number of reasons which Deleuze will get into later on in the lecture, Kant is this moment of the will becoming autonomous in thought. Kant will set about the task of grounding, the infinite task that will be the source of value (in the singular). The last paragraph is worth quoting full:

“The diversity of values came from their being transformed natural ends. They were still attached to natural ends. But when the will determines its own content, there is no longer a diversity of values. Grounds are no longer infinite tasks presented as values. The foundation became conceptual. We pass from mythology to philosophy.” (p19)

The will is detached from natural ends when there are no longer multiple values, or, rather, the correct order is that the will folded in on itself and then excluded the diversity of values in posing a ground – a single ground. From many to one value: a foundation, a ground for us all to stand on. A single earth that we all share, but only as decontextualized and self-driven individuals. The single ground that props up the abstract individual or the subject.

Nietzsche will object: there is desire without the one who desires, the individual being an image among images. Nietzsche’s philosophy will not be of the ground, it will not be grounded – he will add a mystification.  He will invoke Dionysus.

From here we will trace the story of philosophy using ‘ground’ as our guide. This is the ground that claims the source of value and resides beyond any particular natural ends and therefore must be conceptual.

From ritual and ceremony, with accompanied indirect imagination,

to the direct realization of natural ends, with accompanied infinite task,

to the infinite task as thing to be realized, with accompanied autonomy or freedom of the will,

to the consolidation of a plurality of values to a single source of value: the ground.

Grounding will be the infinite task that seeks the source of value (in the singular), be it The Will, Spirit, History, or (I would add) Matter.

A Manifesto for Planet Politics

Planet Politics
One of the most promising of manifestos I’ve seen in the past few years. From this brief summary I can see that a new approach to the emergency of climate change is sought that includes the planet and the biosphere together with international relations and high-powered state politics. Refreshing to see a manifesto calling for more international cooperation and an embrace of the interconnectedness of economics, ecology, and state-politics that seems necessary to me as well, instead of the more insurrectionist-minded manifestos I’ve come across. It’s behind pay-for-view subscription though.

Update: the manifesto is now accessible in this blog post: [Manifesto for a Planet Politics]

Installing (Social) Order

I am proud to be able to share an excerpt from a collective contribution to Millennium’s journal born from the annual conference “Failure and Denial in Global Politics” in London last October. In this article, Anthony Burke, Audra Mitchell, Simon Dalby, Daniel Levine and I argue that IR has reached the limits of its intelligibility with coming climate changes. We call for an expanded dialogue both within and beyond our disciplinary boundaries using the polemic and rhetoric of the manifesto to stimulate debate and response.


Photo credit: Stefanie Fishel, 2016


A Manifesto from the End of IR

Anthony Burke, Stefanie Fishel, Audra Mitchell, Simon Dalby, Daniel J. Levine

This manifesto is not about politics as usual. We seek political imagination that can rise from the ashes of our canonical texts. It is about meditating on our failures and finding the will needed for our continued survival. Global ecological collapse brings…

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