A Flowering of Subjectivities: Rethinking Antagonism in the Desert of Crisis

How the G20 demonstrations in Pittsburgh prefigured new models of resistance in North America

By Ian Paul

CASCADE: Conversations in Crisis

Over the last decade, we have experienced the collapse and disintegration of broad-based resistance movements within the United States. The antiglobalization movement largely dissolved in the tides of repression following the emergence of post 9/11 security apparatuses. Soon after, the antiwar movement preceding the invasion of Iraq that had animated social machines across the globe crumbled under the weight of its failure to prevent the war.

The collapse of economic and political models which have defined the fi rst breaths of the 21st century have been accompanied by this collapse of our capacity to be antagonistic and act against such systems. Two basic models continue to be activated by antiauthoritarians and anticapitalists in the U.S. despite this – that of the organizational model (which draws its structure from the collectives of civil-war Spain) and that of the summit protest (which pulls largely from the autonomous movements of the 1980s and 1990s). As capitalism stumbles and stutters and its structures globalize and transform, the radical left has continued to operate within these same failed models which have become increasingly ineffective.

The collapse of these models should not frighten us however, and it is within the rubble of these trajectories that we begin to fi nd the blossoms of new antagonisms within which to stage conflict and struggle. While the struggles of the past have largely operated within traditional modernist subjectivities (which were fi rst articulated largely by Marx and then were later rearticulated by the theorists of feminism and identity politics), new subjectivities have begun to develop which may offer us different trajectories in which to move forward.

An Identity Crisis

The two models within which antiauthoritarians move offer two different modes of identification and differentiation that provided us with stages for action. First, the anarchist organization offers us a positive method for defining ourselves, making use of points of unity and struggle (platforms) that provide the basis for collective horizontal organization. Second, the summit protest offered us with an opportunity to defi ne ourselves negatively, and in our opposition of economic and political summits we reinvent ourselves as agents of antagonism and negation.

This bifurcation of subjectivity into positive and negative vectors allowed us to act in ways that would be impossible otherwise, but ultimately they proved to be problematic and debilitating as we attempted to build new societies and counter-cultures. While it may be diffi cult to imagine new models with which to replace these, it is overwhelmingly obvious that new models must emerge if we are to be successful in our efforts. If we are to move past our previous models and develop new modes of resistance, we must begin to imagine new hybrid subjectivities within which to relate to society and empire. Our actions have become broken records, simply repeating themselves and endlessly reproducing the same results that have failed to attack capitalism on any substantive level. In the midst of the current crisis, it is our task to forge new structures with which we can both generate and negate.

The two models which defined antiauthoritarian movements in the past couple of decades rely on traditional ways of describing ourselves (subjects) in relationship to the global systems of domination (objects), and end up reproducing the same binary structures which the state relies upon to proliferate its influence and discipline. The question of “who are we?” forces us into the previously described models of “we are” or “we are not” and fail to provide us with new models of subjectivity within which to stage antagonisms.

The problems that arise when we try to describe ourselves positively as an assemblage of attributes immediately points to our lack of a revolutionary trajectory. The categories of “anticapitalist” and “antiauthoritarian” do well to describe our politics, and are often deployed when we participate in broader currents. However, by describing ourselves in this way, we perpetually fall into a reactionary position, always countering the latest developments of capital and never moving beyond the limits imposed by such systems. It is of no surprise that when the policies and institutions of neoliberalism fi nally began to falter, we were not ready to act in this moment in any sort of meaningful way.

From Identity to Capacity

How we envision ourselves, and ultimately, how we choose to relate to one another will largely determine how the form of our movement manifests and takes shape. Often it seems that we shift our identities and subjectivities depending on the situation, moving from student to worker to queer to anarchist throughout the course of the day. All of these individual subjectivities offer frameworks within which to develop an analysis of the current system and then mobilize structures with which to oppose these systems. Over time, it has become clear that the inefficacy and repetition of these subjectivities as autonomous and isolated gestures has not challenged capital. However, the articulation of the subjectivities within the plurality and multitude of a variety of struggles has perhaps offered us a new model of subjectivity, one that does not rely on binary relationships to the state or to capitalism but rather offers us a fi eld in which to explore new relationships and capacities.

This was perhaps first theorized within the antiglobalization movements – that a plurality of different subjectivities could manifest together to form larger collective bodies within which to forge new societies. While these fi rst hints of a new subjectivity began to appear in texts using terms like “prefigurative” and “movement of movements”, and then later were rearticulated within French insurrectionary circles drawing largely from critical theoretical frameworks (most notably Deleuze and Guattari), these developments quickly began to pollute our past models of subjectivity with new avenues and potentials of moving and being. Instead of remaining stratifi ed within the failed models of the 90’s, these new hybrid subjectivities could perhaps lead to new types of actions, organizations and relationships.

What these contributions allow us to do, largely, is rearticulate how we think of subjectivity in relation to struggle. Instead of positioning ourselves as bodies and masses defined by what we are together, we can instead consider ourselves in relation to what we can do together. By shifting from the coding mechanisms of identity to the actionable potentials of our collective capacities, we perhaps can develop new potentials within our movements.

At this moment I feel it is clear that by resituating how we think of subjectivity as a moment of production and capacity rather than as a fact of an essentialism, that we cannot completely abandon identity-based subjectivities altogether. While a free-play of subjectivities within the space of movements and multitudes has a liberatory and promising capacity, the codified and stratified subjectivities of the state do not simply vanish in this process.

Structures of inequality concerning race, class, gender or sexuality (to name a few) remain operative and present in our movements and must continue to be addressed as we imagine new subjectivities. This is something which has often been overlooked in insurrectionary circles in particular, and while identity politics has proven to be problematic in a variety of ways, it is not to be completely abandoned in the conversation surrounding our ability to do things instead of be things.

The Desert of Crisis

In order to properly describe these new models of subjectivity it is important to note the large shifts that have occurred in capitalist structures which have allowed these new models to take shape. The shift from the divided world of the cold war (the 3rd World War) to the unifi ed space of global capitalism (the 4th World War) marks a change in the way capitalist systems of exploitation function. The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 is usually offered as the moment of birth of this new unified space, which marks the beginning of a new period of capitalism’s economic, political and cultural proliferation.

It is also important to note that the fall of the Berlin wall opened the way for new social movements, most notably the establishment of large autonomous communities throughout Western Europe. It is not a coincidence that the proliferation of global capitalism generated new forms of antagonism within this system. While global capitalism often manifests as a totalizing structure, encompassing and capturing all of social, political and economic life in its operation, gestures of negation and attack have the potential to create new spaces in which alternate subjectivities can be expressed and played out and in which we fi nd the blossoms of radical change.

When I describe these new subjectivities, I mean to situate them within this geography – the geography of the unified, entangled and smooth space of the desert. While I have spent the fi rst half of this paper advocating for a logic of capacity and doing over a logic of being, what I mean to assert is that the terms have fundamentally collapsed– that both doing and being are constituent of one another. The division and bifurcation between being something and doing something is inoperative within the terrain of global capitalism largely because of the entangled nature of such a space.

It is no longer possible to claim we are autonomous or separate from global capitalist systems as its aesthetics continue to defi ne and delimit the ways we think and act in the world and with each other. I mean to claim that in the process of doing, in the process of acting, resisting, fighting and struggling – it is in this process that we produce ourselves. In prefigurative politics this has been expressed as the unifi cation of ends and means and in insurrectionary discourses it has been expressed as the emergence of ‘forms-of-life’, but the argument is largely the same.

The question which continues to arise as we move forward is: how can we develop relationships and structures which both would act to proliferate and spread in a contagious and liberatory manner while at the same time would reinforce potential radical subjectivities? What are the structures that have the capacity to both generate and sustain new geographies within the global capitalist structures within which we can manifest antagonism(s)?

Prefigurative Subjectivities in Pittsburgh

While the first half of this paper has been largely theoretical and perhaps obscure in certain ways as a result, I hope in this second half to make concrete the arguments using the recent demonstrations in Pittsburgh against the G20 as a case-study. While these demonstrations were similar in many ways to past summit protests, there were a few differences which articulated new strategies and models of subjectivity that I’ve been describing throughout this paper.

The demonstrations have already attracted a great deal of writing and analysis, so I will refrain or writing about the specific chain of events or even large narrative aspects of the summit, and will instead attempt to focus on prevalent collective behaviors within the mass of demonstrators which perhaps expresses new subjectivities.*

Perhaps the first and most obvious manifestation of this new subjectivity was found in the demonstrators’ movement through the city. Large arguments had occurred in the planning spokescouncil over which route the march should take on the day of the demonstration with one group wanting to go to the summit meeting while another wanted to go to the business district. The spokescouncil ended up deciding to march to the summit meeting place itself, which was sure to draw large amounts of police repression and isolate the demonstrators from more active and populated areas of the city.

These predictions largely became true, and when the police first attacked the march with tear gas and sonic-weapons, the demonstrators quickly dispersed into a multiplicity of smaller groups. While the police had hoped to quash the demonstration as such through their attack, they instead merely changed the form of the demonstration as it continued to move though the city.

By spreading the conflict across the city itself rather than let it focus on the G20 meeting, the conflict began to more accurately reflect the recent shifts in global capital that had been described earlier in this paper. The smooth and entangled space of post-89 capitalism allows for action to manifest across this space as a whole instead of at specifi c and static sites. In this way the resistance operated both within and against the logic of these systems, creating new potentialities for antagonism.

What had at first been a contained and singular march, slowly moving around the city while chanting and holding banners, quickly became something else entirely. Now, with smaller groups roaming the alleys and streets of Pittsburgh across large geographies, the entire city became the site of struggle. While these events typically are defined by binary relationships (ex. a group of demonstrators [a] against a group of police [b]), instead the event became entangled in the functioning of the city and new capacities unfolded.

This shift in the spatial nature of the demonstration arguably allowed for a new play of subjectivity to take hold. While most of the demonstrators had been participating in the demonstration as part of the black bloc (a tactic in which anarchists all wear identical black clothing to conceal their identities), this broadening of the terrain and atomization of the demonstration allowed those who were resisting to shift and change their own subjectivities as the situation changed. For hours, demonstrators moved around the city shifting and transforming, effectively avoiding police repression while at the same time sparking singularities of resistance.

The police would occasionally catch up with the smaller groups of demonstrators, but instead of falling back into the old dichotomies of police versus demonstrators, the demonstrators dispersed and shifted their subjectivities in order to reintegrate themselves into the normal functioning of the city. This would often leave the police quite bewildered as to where the mob of angry protestors had disappeared to, and eventually the police would be forced to run off chasing another group, only allowing the previous group to remanifest in the streets and begin to mount resistance yet again.

This happened all throughout the day, and later on in the evening near the university. This constant shifting of subjectivities created an ebb and fl ow of struggle throughout the course of the entire day without clear limits or borders between everyday life and confl ict. This change from a singular, constant and directed demonstration to a multiple, immanent and dispersed confl ict separated the events in Pittsburgh from past summits in North America, and proved to proliferate resistance in a much more profound and uncontrollable way.

From Différance to Desire

The shift from identity to capacity and from singular to multiple offers us a new framework with which to think about our movements. Instead of moving to articulate what makes our politics different or distant from other sets of politics or attempt to establish an identity outside of capitalist systems (subculture? counterculture? autonomy?), we should instead be seeking to create geographies and spaces which enable the desires of radical subjectivities take hold outside of traditional subjectivities. The diversity of our subjectivities should not discourage, but rather should encourage the manifestation of new forms and spaces against capital and for new societies.

The demonstrations in Pittsburgh are vulnerable to many of the same criticisms of past summit protests – that it was only a brief (yet explosive) incident that failed to last or proliferate, that it is a show of our collective impotence rather than our strength, that we are ‘addicted to rioting’. I believe these criticisms carry some amount of weight, but at the same time fail to acknowledge the seeds and potentials which these kinds of events (particularly Pittsburgh) can hold and how these conflicts can act as laboratories for new relationships an actions to take shape.

The emergence of new subjectivities and spaces in Pittsburgh has the capacity to change the direction of antiauthoritarian struggle in North America, and could potentially allow our politics to spread and proliferate into broader frameworks beyond our own summit protests. We should not hesitate to seize upon new subjectivities that have opened up under the current crisis. Through exploring these new ways of moving and through the activation of hybrid subjectivities, we have the potential to generate new maps of antagonism and confl ict as well as prefi gure anticapitalist social relationships.

Ian Paul is an artist and writer living in the Bay Area of California.

*(the Crimethinc Ex-Worker Collective has already published a play-by-play account of the demonstrations at http://www.crimethinc.com/texts/recentfeatures/g20.php)


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