The Enigma of Revolt – Andy Merrifield in Adbusters

Andy Merrifield, author of Magical Marxism (Pluto, 2011) has written a remarkable essay in Adbusters (#103) on Kafka, Occupy and the nature of revolt today.

As the introductory paragraph puts it, ‘Over the past year or so, Occupy has provoked an epistemological break in the ontological morphing of our social, political, and economic life – that subtle, creeping shift of our being in the world.’

Before Merrifield’s assessment of Occupy comes an analysis of where we stand now, in a post-modern world. He positions this, and us, in the juncture between Marx and Kafka. The following paragraphs are lifted from the first section of his essay:

Our world is a different place to what it was in 1968. It permits different hopes and dreams, poses different threats and possibilities. Paradoxically, today’s reality is more easily critiqued than ever before using basic Marxist tools. At the level of analysis, it has never been simpler to adopt a classical Marxist stance and be right. And yet, at the level of political practice, that analysis seems far too facile, far too futile to lead us anywhere constructive. There’s little in this analysis and ensuing critique that leaves us with any guides as to political practice, to practical struggle, to how we might act on this knowledge. One of the difficulties is that the world we think about, the world that functions through a particular economic model, is classically Capital-ist in the sense of Marx’s great text; yet the world we have to act in, the world we have to organize in, is tellingly Kafkaesque. Marxists know how to analyze and criticize this reality; indeed, we know all too well, sometimes a little too well for our own good. But we know less about how to act, how to construct a practical politics from the standpoint of this theoretical knowledge. There’s no direct correlation between the two. We have yet to resolve the enigma of revolt.

The present conjuncture is Kafkaesque to the degree that castles and ramparts reign over us everywhere. These castles and ramparts are usually in plain view, frequently palpable to our senses, even inside us, yet at the same time they’re distant and somehow cut off, somehow out of reach and inaccessible; their occupants are evermore difficult to pin down when we come knocking at their doors, providing we can find the right door to knock on. Kafka was better than Marx at recognizing the thoroughly modern conflict now besieging us under capitalism. Marx understood the general dynamics of the production of castles and the trials this system subjects us to. But he understood less about its corridors of power and how its organizational bureaucracies functioned. Marx understood the difficulty of waging war against a process; however, he was never around long enough to imagine how this process would one day undergo administrative (mis)management, how it would not only get chopped up by massively complex divisions of labor: it would also beget even more massive bureaucratic compartmentalizations, done by unaccountable and anonymous middle-managers.

Kafka knew how modern conflict wasn’t just an us against other people class affair, but an us against a world transformed into an immense and invariably abstract total administration. The shift Kafka makes between his two great novels, The Trial (1925) and the unfinished The Castle (1926), makes for a suggestive shift in our own supranational administered world. In The Trial, Joseph K., like a dog, stands accused in a world that’s an omnipotent tribunal, a sort of state-monopoly capitalist system. In The Castle, the protagonist K. populates a world that’s suddenly shrunk into a village whose dominating castle on the hill seems even more powerful and elusive than ever before. Perhaps in this village with its castle we can now glimpse our own “global village,” a world shrunken by globalization, a world in which a psychological drama of one man confronting a castle is now really a political parable of us all today – us having to conceive a collective identity to resolve the dark gothic mystery we ourselves have scripted, a mystery in which we are simultaneously inmates and warders.

“Direct dealings with the authorities was not particularly difficult,” K. muses, for well organized as they might be, all they did was guard the distant and invisible interests of distant and invisible masters, while K. fought for something vitally near to him, for himself, and moreover, at least at the very beginning, on his own initiative, for he was the attacker … But now by the fact that they had at once amply met his wishes in all unimportant matters – and hitherto only unimportant matters had come up – they had robbed him of the possibility of light and easy victories, and with that of the satisfaction which must accompany them and the well-grounded confidence for further and greater struggles which must result from them. Instead, they let K. go anywhere he liked – of course only within the village – and thus pampered and enervated him, ruled out all possibility of conflict, and transported him into an unofficial, totally unrecognized, troubled and alien existence … So it came about that while a light and frivolous bearing, a certain deliberate carelessness was sufficient when one came in direct contact with the authorities, one needed in everything else the greatest caution, and had to look round on every side before one made a single step.

K. marvels at a world that sounds eerily like our own: “nowhere had he seen officialdom and life as interwoven as they were here, so interwoven that it sometimes even looked as if officialdom and life had changed places.”

Kafka’s vision may emanate from the world of 1925, but it prefigures the present day, with the boundaries between the economic and political; private and public; authority and everyday life irrevocably blurred and obfuscated. As Merrifield observers, erstwhile distinctions have lost their clarity of meaning – ‘ integration functions through a conflating process of co-optation and corruption, of re-appropriation and re-absorption, of blocking off by breaking down. Each realm now simply elides into its other.’ At a structural level, what this means for our lives and our expectations for the future, Merrifield explains:

The yearning for a steady job, as in the good old days, with benefits, belonging to a union, with old forms of vertical organization, done through representative bodies, via old labor institutions – all that seems quaintly nostalgic. More than anything else, there are no more expectations, no system to count on, no bosses or governments to guarantee anybody a living.

And so we come to Occupy. Again, quoting at length:

The interplay between a now ubiquitous statement of authority, and one example of the many radical, subversive permutations to have sprung up in its wake.

One of the most interesting things about the Occupy movement, about why it is potentially so radical as well as so potentially flawed, is that it has reframed the whole nature and language of revolt. To begin with, it doesn’t make any demands and has no designated leaders. It has unnerved the enemy because it has tried, inadequately for the time being, to utter a different vocabulary of revolt. It does everything that Kafka’s K. tried not to do. K., after all, was obsessed with demanding his rights – “I want no favors from the castle, I want my rights” – obsessed with cracking the secret interior of the castle, of gaining entry. He became so obsessed with the castle that he’d begun to internalize its logic, was suffused by its logic to the extent that he could only think via its logic. Above all, he wanted clarity, wanted to clear up that which was unclear. It was the wrong question to ask. K. wanted to embody the castle, to get into the castle, to penetrate its ramparts; he sought out its physical presence, its representative: Klamm. K. had to humanize the castle somehow, wanted to deal with it on personal terms.

Thankfully, the Occupy movement does none of these things. In fact, it doesn’t pose questions at anyone in particular, doesn’t personalize its grievance; instead, it indicts the system, has tried to infiltrate its capillaries and arteries of power as an abstract entity. And if protagonists occupy space somewhere, these spaces of occupation are curiously new phenomena, too, neither rooted in place nor circulating in space, but rather an inseparable combination of the two, an insuperable unity that is redefining what a 21st-century public space might be, could be. Squares like Tahrir in Cairo or Zuccotti Park in Manhattan are urban public spaces not for reason of their pure concrete physicality, but because they are meeting places between virtual and physical worlds, between online and offline conversations, between online and offline encounters. That is why they are public: because they enable public discourses, public conversations to talk to each other, to meet each other, quite literally. They are public not because they are simply there, in the open, in a city center, but because these spaces are made public by people encountering one another there. The efficacy of these spaces for any global movement is defined by what is going on both inside and outside these spaces, by the here and the there, by what is taking place in them and how this taking place is greeted outside them, by the rest of the world, how it inspires the rest of the world, how it communicates with the rest of the world, how it becomes the rest of the world. It’s a dialogue between inside and outside that knows all the while that the dichotomy represents only different moments within a unity of process, à la Marx’s “Introduction” to the Grundrisse. Marx’s famous schema of how capitalist production begets distribution, how distribution begets exchange, exchange consumption, consumption more production, distribution more exchange, exchange more distribution, distribution more production, etc., etc., now has to be vision of the circulation of revolt, of its production and virtual circulation, of its emotional and empathetic exchange, of its consummation, of how all this hangs together in some complex, enigmatic global flow of counter-power.

And if there is a theoretical project here, it is mapping these flows of revolt, figuring out how to make revolutionary theory more affective and effective. Affective, in the sense that it touches us as human beings, affects us sensually, makes us joyous and angry, compassionate and caring, pissed off and performative; effective, not through understanding these emotions, but by putting these emotions into practice, making them matter in action, through action; how we can not so much organize this action as coordinate this action, coordinate it horizontally, manage the radical fusions between people in specific places. Within this project there is no going backward, no invocations of old truths, old desires for a clear-cut public sector as the antidote to private greed; it is too late to go back now.

Andy Merrifield concludes in the same evocative prose that made Magical Marxism such a delight to read, offering some way forward in a world that offers no critical distance – even if only in an emphatic statement of what we must reject:

Now, we are left with bare life, with the naked truth: how to resolve the enigma of revolt ourselves, how to do so without safety nets, without the welfare state, without paternal capitalism; how to do it without subsidization. (The revolution will never be funded, of course, even if it might get televised on YouTube!) An all-new vocabulary is required to resolve this enigma, a new way of seeing, a new structure of feeling. The enigma of revolt is tantamount to discovering (or inventing) a superstring theory of revolution, making it empirical, real; a radical Higgs boson whereby some secret dimension unites all hitherto dissociated struggles, an unknown dimension and patterning of space-time. Like particle physicists, we know, theoretically and mathematically from our radical hypotheses, that this collective reality exists, even if we have never yet witnessed it empirically. We are 99% sure that the figures stack up, that those in this Higgs boson will be the 99%. If that ever happens, we will see before our eyes a beautiful kaleidoscope of sorts, a passage into another political reality. But the passage isn’t achieved through analyzing what they do, what capital does, as much as self-analyzing what we do, what we might be able to do inside what they do, beyond what they do. It involves a change of heart as well as of tack, an effort to address pragmatically and programmatically that great Kafkaesque question: How do we escape The Castle within us?

Magical Marxism

Subversive Politics and the Imagination

Andy Merrifield

Breathes new life into the Marxist tradition, applying previously unexplored approaches that reveal vital new modes of political activism and debate.

“Andy Merrifield is original, erudite, politically alive and readable. And above all, this book will be (in strictly the first sense of the term) thought-provoking!” – John Berger, novelist and critic

“Andy Merrifield brings us a Marxism that is ‘warmer’ than most recent forms, Marxism as it might have been imagined by DH Lawrence or one of the great Latin American novelists. He wants us to reimagine Marxism without bureaucracy and without commissars. If we can get deep into the ideas themselves, they can be a life force for us. Andy helps us see how Marxism can make us more authentic human beings.” – Marshall Berman, author of All that is Solid Melts into Air

£17.99 only £16.00 on the Pluto site

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