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 rare 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.

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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Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, “Vita Activa and the Modern Age”

Peter Gratton shares his lecture on the last chapter of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, in which she explains how the modern era has altered the thinking of humanity as earth-bound. The resulting world-alienation and earth-alienation is exemplified in the subjectivist philosophy of Descartes and the mathematical concept of the universe, with its place-less thought of the point from which all can be observed. These ideas have far-reaching implications for how we think in the modern era and for perceiving the barriers to significant political change.


[I have been posting my recent lectures on Arendt’s political philosophy. A previous lecture on Part I and II of The Human Condition can be found here and here is another on the crucial chapter “Action.”]

“Vita Activa and the Modern Age”

16 March 2016

This last section of The Human Condition is the most wide ranging and often quixotic of the book. By this point, we have seen the triumph of animal laborans and the corollary rise of the social, which has upset the previous boundaries between labor, work, and action, which made politics in the West possible in the first place. The chapter is best framed between the twin phenomena of “world alienation” and “earth alienation.” Inasmuch as the world is the spacing of plurality among and between humans in the plural, world alienation is another word for the “homelessness” marked out in Origins of Totalitarianism, a homelessness…

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On Cowboy Bebop, part three

The final bounty that the Bebop crew sets after together tests the crew’s mettle like none other as they go after the leader of a cult. A man named Londis has been appearing on TV and convincing people to join his cyborg cult or “migration.” He has purportedly found a way to store someone’s brain activity – all of the electrical patterns in the brain and so the entire cognitive activity of a person – into data. Once your “soul” is digitalized and mapped into electron-silicon content instead of electron-neural content, you can then release that soul from the body and join the ethereal space of the internet. What if our minds or souls could escape the confines of our bodies and exist somewhere else? It’s an old thought experiment with a Cowboy Bebop twist: a figurehead has created a scandal by forming a cult around his new “technology” and is killing people with it. People get the word that they can leave their impure bodies behind and find ascetic bliss in the “other world” of the internet and they start committing suicide or otherwise going missing. The awakening that the SCRATCH movement preaches is that of the spirit transforming from the imperfect material world to the perfect world of spirit, via a new piece of technology whose powers people are unsure of. The old mind-body problem has taken on a new dimension with the new ability to store a massive amount of material data, and now people are becoming convinced that living in the internet can make their spirits immortal.

Every member of the Bebop crew plays a role in this session. Even Ein the dog finally reveals his power as a “data-dog”, with hacking abilities that surpass even Ed’s programs. Together the crew probes the case and work their leads to locate this guy but run into the same trouble that everybody else has – nobody can find this guy. Everyone with a lust for the reward has been searching for this man whose face is splattered all over the news, but everyone has come up empty. They can’t find him because he doesn’t exist in the flesh, only in image. The name of the man ‘Londis’ is taken from a dead man who disappeared many years ago before he could age to the way he looks now, and his image was computer generated by the mastermind of the SCRATCH movement. Londis only exists in cyberspace and on TV screens convincing people that they can escape their flesh-and-bone bodies and live in “the infinite sea of electrons” that is the internet. So, a fake man is telling people through the bevy of electronic screens in this society they can transcend their bodies by swimming through the cybernetic currents and finally achieve enlightenment. The internet and its electron current, dashing from one circuit board to another, is the new dream-place.

Jet takes a trip through the device that the SCRATCH movement has been using to upload people’s souls: a new immersive video-game system similar to the oculus rift that takes up your entire field of vision when you put on its goggles. They discover that when you run the SCRATCH program, a series of images fire-off rapidly and bombard your eyes and ears with their religious symbols. But that’s not all, it is also designed to paralyze certain inhibitors and force the viewer into a a sort of passive dream-state while all of this is going on. It might have taken Jet had it not been for a shock of pain that disrupted the process coming from Ein’s bite. Every cult or religion has utilized trance states or otherwise induced moments of utter tranquility mixed at some times in with ecstatic revelry with others but this is a true twenty-first update. The magic or mystery of how an array of symbols or a pantheon of gods can imbue so much meaning and emotion into a body has been nullified and replaced with direct reorganizing of the neuron-firings in the body’s brain. The possibility of transcending the body and entering the untarnished spirit-world is surely believed by some of the members of SCRATCH, even before they are put under the goggles and selectively paralyzed by their program, but the methods of this cult have evolved away from collective chanting, alternative ritual, and dance to seizing an individual’s immediate perception. It is a cult tailor-made for the personal computer station.

As the bebop crew works their way through electronic trial that was left by the video-game goggles back to the man they believe to be Londis, they come to a startling destination. The man behind the cult is indeed a man in the flesh-and-blood, but he is a kid who has been resting in a hospice for years. “Ronny Spangen” is a young adult in a vegetable state, sleeping without conscious control over any of his bodily functions except for his thoughts. He used the machines that are monitoring his sleep and found his way into the internet, where he could start building a website by pulling religious imagery, music, historical figures, etc. together into a cohesive cult movement. This man is deeply asleep, yet, through his hacker training, he is able to access the attention of just about everyone in the solar system thanks to the internet and the interconnectedness of 2071 society. From their he is constantly and methodically convincing people that “you must awaken, awaken your soul” and live pretty much in the same way as he is, although without the life support machines and doctors of the hospice.

The session dwells on this only briefly at the end when Jet says: “I guess all he could do was dream, so the dreams turned bad.” Ronny Spangen is indeed only able to dream, but that dream-state is far from the transcendent world of the spirit he is telling everyone to follow him into. His terminology and symbolic design of the movement as the man Londis are tricks put over on people to get them to experience the world as he does. He may or may not believe that he has found salvation as a vegetable hooked up to a life-support machine, but he lets out his true intention when the bebop crew puts a stop to his meddling in cyberspace at the real location of Ronny Spangen’s body: “No, it isn’t fair. Why does it have to be like this? Everyone should have the same body as I do”, he says as his digital image vanishes. In his unceasing dream-state, Ronny Spangen is aware of what he is missing out on and it makes him angry. He is lonely and wants other people to feel the same way that he does, but he does so out of spite. Left with no access to the world but through various screens that are hooked-up to (the internet) Ronny cultivates a desire to control people.

Spike: “Why do you kill off the members of your own group? What’s the point of that?”

Londes: “I am not forcing anything on anyone. They are merely practicing a faith that they’ve decided to believe in of their own free will. Tell me, why do you think people believe in God? Because they want to. It’s not easy living in such an ugly corrupt world, there is no certainty and nothing to hope for. People are lost so they reach out. Don’t you get it? God didn’t create humans, no, it’s humans who created God.”

Londes: “Do you want to know what the greatest and also the worst device that humans ever invented? It’s television! Television controls people by bombarding them with information until they lose their sense of reality. Now television itself has become the new religion. Television has created a people who believe instantly in dramatic fantasies who can be controlled by tiny dots of light.”

Spike: “You’re like a kid with a toy… You’re the one that can’t tell fantasy from reality. You’re the one who lives in the little dots of light. If you want to dream, just do it by yourself”

This is the death blow for Londis, (as the leader of SCRATCH) dealt at the same moment that Jet and Ed are disconnecting Ronny from the internet. It doesn’t defeat him in the way that Jet and Ed did but does so ideologically. Unfortunately for Ronny’s dreams of controlling people through cyberspace, Spike can see through him and into the body of origin, with its desires in tow. Ronny does indeed live in fantasy world of little dots of light, where dreams manifest and travel form one screen to the next. In fact, he is actually living their and unable to wake, even though he is telling everyone else to wake up and, ironically, join his existence in a ’dream to the death’. He doesn’t want to simply dream all by himself the way Spike recommends, not with all of his prowess as a hacker and mind-manipulator; the real question is: why does he chose to fabricate a cult and instill (or, more aptly, upload) false hopes in people while killing many of them? It’s tempting to say that having nothing to do but surf cyberspace in world of Cowboy Bebop has bred someone with the desire to prey on the distraught and the curious, as if the solar system was so thickened with corruption and sadness that a man forced into a perpetual dream in this place could only dream-up sinister plans. The fascination with television and the desire for control may be the result of getting locked up in dreams, or getting locked up in the dreams of everyone else in cyber-solar-system-capitalism, or it might be the intense loneliness of a man unable to feel the presence of another body and converse the way people typically do.

What gave Spike the prescience to fire back a quick response to the domineering grandiosity of Londis’s comments can be traced back to an experience he had in a previous session. In session 21, ’Pierrot le Fou’, Spike is attacked by a fat, flamboyant assassin in a top-hat who appears to truly relish murder. Spike narrowly escapes the first encounter and goes back to meet him for another showdown, all before the bebop crew get the chance to dig around and find out who this guy is. He was a human experiment conducted by the military to create an unstoppable killing machine. Bullets stop before his invisible force field and fall to the ground, he has every heavy fire-arm at his disposal, and he can fly (just run with it). The catch is he has the mind of a child and instead of becoming smarter with age, the extreme manipulation of his body chemistry has sent his intelligence the opposite direction. He is like a little kid with toys, but his toys are the deadliest weapons and he faces no repercussions for using them. The government even covers up for this gruesome lunatic out of fear for the public backlash.

Keep in mind, Spike knows none of this. All he knows about “Mad Pierrot” comes from his encounters with him in gun fights. Spike is able to see quite clearly for himself that this is a murderous child when he is finally able to inflict a bit of pain on him and watches as he screams for his mama. And that’s all he really had to do: touch him. By the time Spike meets Londis on a big television screen he can spot the wayward dreamers inflicting misery and death upon others. Individuals deprived of human contact and possessing oversized weapons only result in destructive dreams, meanwhile, those with modest dreams for them and their loved ones are routinely shot down. Spike learns the ways of this world over the course of the show from one oddball character to the next and from there he makes his decision on how to face up to his past.

Spike is forced to confront his past when the tensions at his former syndicate boil over and Vicious attempts a coup of the old leaders of the Red Dragons. The coup fails, Vicious is put in chains, and the syndicate is now hunting down Spike and Julia for their past relationship with Vicious. The stars having aligned just so, Spike is now called upon to confront all of the elements in his old life.

After dodging the syndicate gunmen in a few firefights, he gets a message from Julia and goes to meet her in the rendezvous spot where they would have met long ago had she followed through with their plan to escape. When she eventually goes to embrace him, she repeats Spike’s old dream for the two of them: “Let’s just go away somewhere, escape, vanish, go where there’s no one else, just the two of us.” Spike’s face is expressionless – this is an old plan and Spike has had too much time to witness what happens to people who flee from the challenges put before them by their social web and the responsibilities generated thereof. Nonetheless, they reunite after ~5 years to join forces against the onslaught that the syndicate is bringing down upon them.

They travel to a familiar old spot where their friend Annie is staying (the hard-drinking lady that Spike visited a while back). Her place has been wrecked by the syndicate and she is bleeding out on the couch. She has just enough strength left to spill out a few words in front of Spike and Julia, “everyone has lost their sense of place in the world, like kites without strings or tails.” Not long after, she dies. As Spike covers her body and goes to collect a shotgun and extra shells, Julia says, “you won’t need all those weapons if we run away together, you know that. You’re staying. Then I’ll stay too. I’ll stay with you until the end.” Spike stops to look at her and says nothing in response. Her resolve is never tested, for when the Red Dragons come back to the spot she dies in the firefight. With Julia’s death, any last shred of hope that Spike had for a different life together has vanished but, based on his reaction to the arrival of Julia and the lessons he has learned throughout the show, Spike is prepared for end of this dream.

Faye had a run-in with Julia prior to her reunion with Spike and the two were able to exchange some friendly words. The two are rather similar: good with firearms and driving/piloting, they are both able to evade or kill some more syndicate henchmen pursuing Julia. When Faye comes back to the Bebop, she speaks with Jet about Julia. Both of them have picked up on the hold Julia has on Spike throughout the show and out of curiosity Jet asks what she is like. Faye describes Julia:

“Ordinary, the dangerous beautiful kind of ordinary that you can’t leave alone. Like an angel from the underworld, or maybe a devil from paradise.”

There doesn’t turn out to be anything special about Julia according to Faye, just a beautiful woman that causes all kinds of trouble. A devil in paradise or the reverse would seem extraordinary enough, but the point is that she was a distraction in Spike’s life in the syndicate. She is an ideal representing Spike’s wish to be free of the bitter realities of life in the syndicate (the underworld) – a common desire to run away, the lure of somewhere better manifested in a pretty face.

In the show’s finale, Spike doesn’t ever express much relief or lust or rage at getting his lover back and then losing her. He stoically and gradually moves toward his end as if he knew where he was supposed to go the whole time and was only waiting for the proper moment to go for it. The time spent with the Bebop crew was full of adventure for a beast of prey (hunting* bounties) but none of it he took very seriously. Being a man of such skill and talent, he seemed to be mostly motivated by tempting fate with the most dangerous jobs he could find because he felt himself to be dead already and drifting through that hazy limbo of purgatory-sleep. After Julia stood him up, he was dejected enough to consider himself dead, while at the same time he was unable to be killed by anyone but Vicious. There was too much at stake in Spike’s life/death: a man of his skill and position cannot go on dreaming in purgatory, not with the weight of so many lives resting on his shoulders. Only by choosing, paradoxically, to do battle at perhaps the highest seat of power will Spike fulfill his fate. And it is here, in his relationship with Vicious, that Spike will finally confront his mortality and simultaneously do something that will have major ripples for the world of Cowboy Bebop.

All that is left before the big showdown is to see off his bebop friends one last time. He gets Jet to make him a last meal and tells him a story about a cat with infinite lives who finally dies without resurrecting after its first true loved one dies. When Jet asks him if he’s doing it all for the girl he responds, “She’s dead. There is nothing I can do for her now.” The dream is over and it is time to go. But before he can leave, he is confronted by Faye with a gun drawn on him asking the big question:

Faye: “… Why are you leaving? You told me once to forget the past because it doesn’t matter. But you’re the one still tied to the past Spike!”

Spike: “Look at my eyes Faye”, he says as he moves them right in front of to her’s, “One of them is a fake. I lost it in an accident. Since then I’ve been seeing the past in one eye and the present in the other, so that I could only see patches of reality, never the whole picture.”

Faye: “Don’t tell me that. You never told anything about your past before, so don’t start now.”

Spike: “I felt like I was watching a dream I’d never wake up from. Before I knew it, the dream was all over.”

Faye: “My memory finally came back. But nothing good came of it. There was no place for me to return to. This was the only place I could go. And now you’re leaving just like that. Why do you have to go? Where are you going? What are going to do, just throw your life away like it was nothing?”

Spike: “I’m not going there to die. I’m going to find out if I’m truly alive. I have to do it Faye.”

Faye’s admission that she feels at home on the Bebop and that she wants Spike to stay is a first for any of them. Formerly they insulted and argued their way into comradeship, so this gesture signals an end to their wild ride through the solar system. Faye’s regained memory hasn’t led her anywhere, whereas Spike will now do what she can’t: return to his past. The two had grown closer in the last part of the show, with Faye even trying to save Spike in his encounter with Mad Pierrot. This situation was foretold by Old Man Bull all the way back in session one when he gave Spike his prophesy:

“You swimming bird. The bird will meet a woman, the bird will be hunted by this woman, and then death.”

“One more time.” replies Spike, “I was killed once before, by a woman.”

Alas, all Faye could do was allow Spike to die when she dulled the luster of Julia’s memory. She does have something that Spike doesn’t, however: a future. With all of his loose ends tied up, Spike is set to go live for a small time, finally awake from his long slumber. Faye had already awoke from her long slumber and while her lack of a past had haunted her, like Spike’s more embedded memory of his past haunted him, Spike has unfinished business from an old life. Faye’s duty is to create a future to fill the void of her past instead of assuming a fate foretold by it.

Vicious has broken his chains with the help of men loyal to his faction and stands alone atop one of the most powerful syndicates in the world. He stands above the bloodshed after slicing up the old leaders and says, “From now on my power is the only power.” It isn’t even clear that Spike knows that he has completed the coup, he seems to know that the will of Vicious will not be denied and the two of them are unmatched in fighting strength, destined to lock horns as “ravenous beast[s].” More fragments of memories pour in as he makes his way to the main building of the Red Dragons.

Spike and Vicious are two opposite reactions to a world that has scattered peoples apart and feels suddenly like a bad dream. Once a promising team in a major syndicate, they were split-up by a beautiful woman and left a void in an extremely powerful organization. Their fallout had very big consequences and instead of forming a team that could guide the Red Dragons (possibly the most powerful organization in the solar system) into treaty-making and general de-escalation like their mentor Mao Yenrai was attempting, Spike’s absence allowed Vicious to assert his violent predilections. We don’t know how Vicious behaved before Spike left, but the two of them were friends as we know from the dark blue memory fragments that have been coming in periodically. Their failure to maintain a tight crew and Spike’s flight from his responsibilities has resulted in the rise of a bloody dictator to head the great syndicate. Two beasts that, once separated, let their extremities take over their futures.

Spike spends a great deal of the show in a mopey daze. Having attempted to reach his fantasy life and failed, he remains in a dream-state and lays about when not on the hunt. His disposition is like that of a cat spending a great deal of time asleep when not attacking his bounties (as the show alludes to occasionally) in contrast to Vicious’s snake. His attitude is an intense nonchalance epitomized by a beautifully simple line at the end of session 19, when he and his spaceship are heading for a crash-landing on earth and his life is decidedly out of his hands: “Oh well, whatever happens, happens.” Once the action is over and he has caught his meal in the hunt, concern for anything else (besides finding his old dream-girl of course) simply doesn’t exist. His seeming lack of care for anything is a counterpoint to Vicious’s intense care for accumulating power and waiting for that moment to strike. The fissure between them created two polar opposites where there should have been a balanced team, an opposition that some have called the difference between active and passive nihilism. The active nihilist Vicious is concerned with a pure destruction and power in the wake of any other meaningful human dimension (such as friendship) and the passive nihilist Spike is concerned with nothing in particular, having withdrawn from his meaningful life inside the syndicate. Their are complications though: Spike has plenty of hedonistic tendencies in the earlier parts of the show and hasn’t exactly withdrawn from worldly pleasures altogether and Vicious may be exacting revenge on Spike for taking Julia away from him. This might all be over a woman, like a modern Trojan war, but the two characters are such stark opposites and yet so similar in fighting ability it cannot be that easy. Even if Spike’s lack of care is due to love lost, staying away from the world in which he has a voice and his actions may influence has proved costly for not only the ones he once cared for but many others – considering the size and power of the Red Dragons. Spike’s strong desire for Julia has led him to abandon his former life and leave open the path for a ruthless killer to take the position he could had and within which he would have performed with far more grace than his counterpart.

The qualities that make Spike the better part for a powerful position is learned throughout the show. After all, the question still remains: “why must Vicious be stopped? What puts his fantasy of ultimate power on a collision course with our protagonist?” Spike meets strangers and befriends some sincere people simply trying to help their own friends and family with great difficulty. He also meets some ambitious characters whose fantasies have taken over their lives and led them down the path of domination and death. A fantasy that pulls people towards each other, their nearest friends, comrades, family, one that carves out a space where they all belong (no matter how much quarreling or heartache it takes to make it), this is what we get from the “space cowboys” on board the Bebop. A fantasy that extracts one away from all of that or a fantasy that is born of alienation from such a homely place, will produce (or abet) a world devouring itself.  By the end of his dreamy journey through purgatory, Spike can tell the difference.

Jet’s fantasy of stopping corruption, catching the bad guys and spreading justice, may have netted some vicious characters of its own (demonstrated in session 16, Black Dog Serenade), but the intensity of his disappointment with the system was matched by the intensity of his hopes to cure it. This led him to quit his quest altogether, teaming up the Spike and joining him in is flight from the past. In contrast with Spike though, Jet has put his skills to better use as a bounty hunter than he formerly did in his past life. In each of the sessions that probe into a grand cover-up or conspiracy in the seats of power, Jet is the one to put the narrative together and discover its history. As a kind of freelance detective, Jet mounts more assaults on the power elites than he could have serving as a cop and remaining within its bureaucracy; his quest for justice was enhanced by removing himself from the police force and getting a taste of desperation. Jet also seems to have found his home on the Bebop, which is symbolized by his role as its de facto cook and house-keeper – he wears the apron. Whether Faye has found her home or not is as open as her future: a free choice.

Spike faces off with Vicious for the last time at the very top of the Red Dragon’s headquarters in what looks like a throne room. After tearing through the building and its guards wielding grenades, sticky-bombs, and his handguns, Spike is told by Vicious “finally you’re awake.” The long dream is over.  It’s fitting Cowboy Bebop would end with a duel, Wild West style. Nobody wins though, they both kill each other. Spike kills Vicious but pays the ultimate price for leaving his world behind with Vicious in his place.  At this point he can only sacrifice himself to cancel out his mistake instead of rule.  After the end credits and another beautiful song, Spike’s star fades out in place instead of burning up as a shooting star like Gren’s did. It is as if they are saying that Spike found his way home and made things right in his old life. In a way, he was already dead, but the world is a far better place for his homecoming.

Before we see Spike collapse on the walking down the stairs, we cut to Julia’s final words, muted at her actual time of death: “It’s all a dream?” “Yeah,” replies Spike, “just a dream.” These words are a consolation for the two characters drawing their final breaths, especially for ones led astray by their dreams in life. Of course, from a cosmic perspective, our lives are just short events with a start and a finish that was once destined for a reintegration into the earth. The entirety of one’s life is a dream, seen from this cosmic place, which we earthlings have ventured out into. Cowboy Bebop considers a world in which we are shooting stars burning up from our rapid activity, unable to reconcile ourselves to our new reality and the magnitude of the increased freedom of movement for some.  Here, in imagining our current security-capitalist state written into the solar system, our mortality remains, as well as the desire for an escape.  For those with the will and the skill like Spike, the weight of a dream is immense: he actually has the power to change this world for the better but chose to flee instead. He carried that weight around until his death when he could be truly free from the burden, as the ending song indicates.  The final words from the show are written at the bottom of the screen where it usual leaves you with “See you space cowboy” and reads: “You’re going to carry that weight.”  The only thing that releases us from our dreams is death and it is the manner in which we reconcile those dreams with reality that determines our fate, perhaps more that anything else.

Between the cosmic highway and our terrestrial ground, we have the blue sky: End Credits with the song ‘Blue’.