Politics and the Management of Violence

a brief note on the storming of the Capitol

(also available at my current blog and in French courtesy of Lundi Matin)

“Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”

              Ronald Reagan, quoted as the Senate reconvened following tonight’s events

“Empire exists ‘positively’ only in crisis, only as negation and reaction.”

               Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War p. 125

It doesn’t take a radical to recognize that the speeches delivered tonight are only the latest attempt by democracy to cloak its slow, painful death with grandiose pronouncements of invulnerability. We are told that democracy is durable, strong, inevitably triumphant, even as we watch it tear itself to pieces. No one believes in the sanctity of politics anymore. Not the spectators, horrified by the irreversible decay they’ve watched unfold on live television, and not even the politicians, in their adrenaline-fueled stupor, stuttering through their reassurances and platitudes. Even the liberals, shaken by this attack on the purity of their order, are showing signs of wear. Between the audience and the participants, everyone has begun to realize that the play is drawing to a close.

As various senators spew bullshit about the sacredness of their duties and the holiness of democracy, it may seem that politics, as a game of ethical designations, is populated by participants who are barely brave enough to play it. To a degree, this is true – the politician is indebted to the weight of two centuries of tradition, their only stability is found in the projection of an absent peace onto an imagined past. But it would be an error to view this cowardice, this refusal to take positions other than reactive, insubstantial ones, as a mistake. Politics is designed to neutralize every body it touches, to absorb any ethical charge and confer an absolute neutrality onto its spectators. This characteristic has been referred to as political alienation, as atomization, or bare life. Aside from being a game of ethical designations, politics is a mechanism of deferral, of brutal dislocation and separation. Bare life, exclusion from the political, is the natural product of politics. Alienation is not an accident.

This is not to say politics has effectively separated itself from the violence that precedes it. The opposite is the case – it separates us from our violence, our energy, our momentum, while waging an unending war of total neutralization in our name. Speech after speech, each senator called attention to the same unthinkable, unimaginable, unprecedented event: violence had forced its way into the halls of Congress, a mob had transgressed the boundary line, despoiled the “temple of democracy” that is the Capitol. What the mouthpieces of the social order can never admit, what they’ve proven themselves completely unequipped to grapple with, is that violence has been here from the very beginning. What else were the Indian Removal Acts, the Fugitive Slave Acts if not brutally violent? How could the governing body that has approved an uncountable number of defense bills funding our decades-long interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria claim to be innocent? Because the conceit of politics lies in making the everyday violence that it generates appear natural – a $600 “stimulus” check is better than nothing, and as for the defense spending, would you rather the terrorists come knocking at our gates? “Crisis has become the ultima ratio of the powers that be. Modernity measured everything in relation to the past backwardness it claimed to be rescuing us from; now everything is measured in relation to its impending collapse.”[1] Politics is animated by a crisis that it generates, a perpetual instability that allows it to persist in a permanent state of exception.

Reagan’s clear-headed words display the ugly core of politics for all to see: peace has never been anything but the smooth management of conflict, the externalization of violence onto an outside that is not allowed to exist, that cannot even be acknowledged as such. Who better to ask than the architect of the drug war, the butcher of Central and South America, the man who let AIDS annihilate an entire generation of queers, who oversaw the birth of neoliberalism? If Reagan wasn’t rotting in a box, maybe CNN would have aired his disavowal of today’s unrest – instead they chose a denunciation penned by none other than George W. Bush, whose “axis of evil” was seamlessly incorporated into the ethical designations of Empire, and whose brutal war on terror was reabsorbed into domestic policing and the maintenance of social order. And soon, Obama will release a statement to the press, or give an inspiring speech calling for unity after this “tragic” or “disgraceful” course of events. The same man whose drone program made it impossible to count civilian casualties will spit out a couple of platitudes on the necessity of “unity,” and liberals across the country will turn to each other, their belief in the status quo ante restored, if only briefly. Cue the next irruption.

Let’s not mince words – today’s temper-tantrum unrest, with tens of thousands across the country occupying centers of government, is very fucking bad for us. We witnessed the designation of a hostis in real time – the escalation of a latent war, the designation of an aggregate as “terrorists” alongside promises that they would be shown no mercy in the retribution they face. Sen. Schumer’s promise to bring law and order back to the republic should not be discounted. While the right’s fanaticism and building militancy represents a serious threat, the fascists most deserving of our immediate attention are in office, promising a return to normal backed with riot cops and tear gas, black bags and gag orders. Today’s charade will bolster both sides of the conflict: the right-wing menagerie led by Trump will gain an inciting event, and a score of patriotic martyrs, while the center-right wing of the party of order has another opportunity to extend both brutal domination and quiet, creeping control over its citizens, and especially over those who are not ethically neutralized enough to be considered citizens – us. “It resembles a physical law. The more the social order loses credit, the more it arms its police. The more the institutions withdraw, the more they advance in terms of surveillance. The less respect the authorities inspire, the more they seek to keep us respectful through force. And it’s a vicious circle, because force never has anything respectable about it. So that to the growing debauchery of force there is an ever diminishing effectiveness of the latter in response. Maintaining order is the main activity of an order that has already failed.”[2] The issue is not that the Trump-worshipping crowds might actually overthrow the government – it is that their tantrum was successful in occupying the heart of the country, and a power left gasping for air is liable to brutally compensate for any infringement on its authority.

Of course, the increased isolation and fanaticism of the right also warrants concern, especially as they are officially labeled enemies of the ruling power. Now, more than ever, it is vital that we can distinguish between the reactionary wing of the Imaginary Party and its revolutionary-experimental body.[3] We understand that far from being “insurrectionaries,” the people who stormed the Capitol were citizens, model subjects of Empire, overexcited auxiliaries of suffocating order and back-breaking tradition, foot soldiers of the social order, the citizen-police of civil society. We are reminded of a statement made in 2001: “Under Empire, the difference between the police and the population is abolished.”[4] Each citizen, each standard-bearer of the republic, can take up the mantle of the police at any time. What we are witnessing is an internal conflict between two parties to the same side of this war, a disagreement over how to best dominate us.

“The appeal to the citizen is therefore never an appeal to a legal subject, but an injunction imposed on the legal subject to go beyond itself and give up its life, to behave in an exemplary fashion, and to be more than a legal subject in order to remain one.”[5]

Here, citizenship is granted through displays of patriotism, support for the leader against his attack by a political cabal. But unexpectedly, the self-supersession and ethical attunement required to be called forth as a citizen was carried away by the movement of the crowd, it exceeded what its figurehead anticipated.

To properly understand this moment, context is important – Trump, his grasp on political power slipping, has begun to spiral. Whether by overestimating his ability to operate outside the law or simply driven to desperation by the knowledge that his official defeat was imminent, his instigation of tonight’s violence effectively shifted his base, if not his own administration as well, into conflict with the burgeoning post-Trump Republicans and their contingent allies in the Democratic party. His encouragement of tonight’s idiotic and ill-planned violence is especially interesting, because it explicitly identifies the origin of this anti-political violence as within the political, an outright mis-management of violence that offers an unobstructed view of the alternating docility-mobilization cycle that underlies Trump’s political success. The people who flooded the Capitol were not motivated by disgust with the current order of things, but by nostalgia for a present that is quickly drawing to a close, led by a demagogue of reaction to demand the status quo remain exactly the same. And as it stands, they’re more mobilized, equipped and dangerous than us – which makes them dangerous to us.

This is not the time for hope – the great paralytic neurotoxin secreted by every architect of political alienation, by every apparatus of capture and containment. Hope is a weapon of deferral, a disease spread by politicians, a virtue of those who watch, not those who act. There’s no use waiting anymore – it’s time to organize ourselves, to prepare for the crackdowns and fragmentations that the future threatens us with. Not to establish the new juridical order in the shell of the old, but to declare our separation from this one.

“Death is everyday, it is the continuous diminution of our presence that occurs when we no longer have the strength to abandon ourselves to our inclinations. Each wrinkle and each illness is some taste we have betrayed, some infidelity to a form-of-life animating us. This is our real death, and its chief cause is our lack of strength, the isolation that prevents us from trading blows with power, which forbids us from letting go of ourselves with the assurance we will have to pay for it. Our bodies feel the need to gather together into war machines, for this alone makes it possible to live and to struggle.”[6]

01/06/2021


notes

[1] The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends <https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/the-invisible-committe-to-our-friends>

[2] The Invisible Committee, Now <https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/the-invisible-committe-now>

[3] “Because the most formidable stratagem of Empire lies in its throwing everything that opposes it into one ugly heap-of “barbarism,” “sects,” “terrorism,” or “conflicting extremisms” fighting against Empire essentially means never confusing the conservative segments of the Imaginary Party-libertarian militias, right-wing anarchists, insurrectionary fascists, Qutbist jihadists, ruralist militants-and its revolutionary-experimental segments.” Tiqqun, This Is Not A Program <https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/tiqqun-this-is-not-a-program>

[4] Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War p. 154

[5] Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War p. 144

[6] Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War p. 187