sabato 21 settembre 2013

Saul Newman's interview on Crowd, Power and Post-Democracy in the 21st Century

Saul Newman's interview on digital populism and recent European political phenomena, held on 5th June 2013 with the author of this blog and of Rizomatika

 EDIT: We collected Newman's interview in PDF file that you can download or 

read online. All interviews on digital populism - in English language - are 

collected into a single file HERE. The (Italian language) that collects all

the interviews is titled "Nascita del populismo digitale. Masse, potere e 

postdemocrazia nel XXI secolo" is available for free download HERE

Crowd, Power and Post-democracy in the 21st Century

Rural fascism and city or neighborhood fascism, youth fascism and war veteran's fascism... fascism of the couple, family, school, and office. Only the micro-fascism can answer the global question: "why does desire long for its repression? how can it desires its very own repression?"' — Gilles Deleuze, Fèlix Guattari, A thousand plateaus, pg.271
    On the micro-fascism
    OC Let us start from the analysis Wu Ming set out in their brief essay Grillismo: Yet another right-wing cult coming from Italy and which interprets Grillo’s Five Star Movement as a new authoritarian right-wing faction. Why did the desire for change of much of the electorate long once again for its very repression? We seem to witness the re-affirmation of Wilhelm Reich’s thought: at a given moment in history the masses wanted fascism. The masses have not been deceived: they have understood very well the danger of authoritarianism; but they have voted it anyway. Even more worrying is that the authoritarian Berlusconi's Freedom People (PDL) and Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) conquer more than half of the Italian electorate together. A very similar situation arose in the UK in May 2013, with the UKIP’s exploit in the latest local elections. Why and in what measure are the toxins of authoritarianism and micro-fascism present in contemporary European society?
SN I’m not sure I entirely agree with the Wu Ming analysis of Grillo and the 5SM. I wouldn’t say it is necessarily a form of fascism, neo-fascism or even right-wing authoritarianism. It is certainly populist, and behind populism and the figure of the People always lies the obscure spectre of a potential fascism. But, at least in its current form, Grillo and 5SM strike me as a more enigmatic phenomenon, which is difficult to classify according to traditional political and ideological categories. It is what I would describe as postmodern populism; a form of anti-politics which seeks to create a kind of interruption in the normal political process and thereby destabilize established modes of political representation. It tries to create a symbolically empty space in the political process, to expose – or so it claims – the corruption and degradation of the political class. This is not quite the same as the fascist or authoritarian project of seeking power – a genuine fascist movement would jump at the opportunity of forming government, which Grillo and 5SM has been resistant to. Also, 5SM is an odd and at times incoherent jumble of policies and programs, both progressive and regressive, left-wing and right-wing, libertarian and populist. Many of their themes – to the extent their pronouncements can be taken seriously – are actually quite appealing: participatory democracy, social justice, ecological protection, etc. 5SM is politics or rather anti-politics as spectacle – an anti-spectacle spectacle. It serves as an empty signifier or blank screen upon which people project their frustration and anger at the political establishment. It is as much Occupy as it is UKIP – an odd, paradoxical, at times confused, and heretical movement. There is a carnivalesque aspect to it; the figure of Grillo here is less like the fascist master and more like the Pope of Fools.

Of course, this does not mean that we should not be wary of all populisms – they can always become fascist. Deleuze and Guattari, after all, talk about the micro-fascisms immanent in the left and the right. It is also the case that we are seeing the emergence all around us of real and dangerous right-wing populisms which take the guise of anti-establishment protest politics. As the economic crisis deepens, as the unemployment situation worsens across Europe, there is little surprise that real fascisms and anti-immigrant racisms are on the rise. One only needs to look at Greece and Golden Dawn, as well as the resurgence of far-right forces in France. This is the perfect breeding ground for new fascisms. I fear a coming barbarism.. Reich’s analysis here has lost none of its validity. People, at certain moments and given certain conditions, desire fascism. It is not a question of false consciousness; there is a fascist desiring machine at work the shadow of The People.

      1919, 1933, 2013. On the crisis
      OC In 2008 Slavoj Zizek said that when the normal run of things is traumatically interrupted, the field is open for a ‘discursive’ ideological competition. In Germany in the early 1930s Hitler won the competition to determine which narrative would explain the reasons for the crisis of the Weimar Republic — the Jewish conspiracy and the corruption of political parties. Zizek ends his reflection by stating that the expectations of the radical left to get scope for action and gain consent may be deceptive as populist or racist formations will prevail: the Greek Golden Dawn, the Hungarian Fidesz, the French Front National, the UK Independence Party are examples. Italy has had farcical groups such as the Lega Nord or the recent Five Star Movement, a bizarre rassemblement that seems to combine Reverend Jones People's Temple with Syriza, or ‘revolutionary boyscoutism’ with the disciplinarism of the societies of control. How can one escape the crisis? What discursive, possibly-winning narratives should be developed? Are the typically Anglo-Saxon neo-Keynesian politics an answer or, on the countrary, is it the new authoritarian populism that will prevail?

SN As signalled in what I have said above, I largely agree with Zizek’s point here. The ideological field is wide open, and we are seeing all kinds of strange permutations and configurations which try to articulate the anger, anxieties and paranoia of the People. I’m not sure that neo-Keynesianism can provide an answer to this – and in any case, the economic policies pursued by the UK (although not in the US) at least are not Keynesian or neo-Keynesian by any measure. No, what we see with austerity cuts is simply the latest guise of neoliberalism, which most governments, of both the left and right, can’t seem to imagine any alternative to. And clearly this is making the situation much worse. But I’m not sure we should see the situation as presenting a clear choise between either neo-Keynesianism or authoritarian populism. These are not the only possibilities. To confront the problem of an emergent fascism clearly requires new collective forms of politics and struggle; we saw something like this in the square occupations and movements in Europe. We are seeing interesting mobilizations of people in Turkey right now. It is difficult to know what can come out of these various movements and occupations, but it seems to me to be the only way to provide an alternative figure or space for collective political formations. Perhaps the People can only be confronted with the Multitude. 

      On the missing people
      OC Mario Tronti states that ‘there is populism because there is no people.’ That of the people is an enduring theme which Tronti disclaims in a very Italian way: ‘the great political forces use to stand firmly on the popular components of the social history: the Catholic populism, the socialist tradition, the diversity in communism. Since there was the people, there was no populism.’ Paul Klee often complained that even in historical artistic avant-gardes ‘it was people who were lacking.’ However the radical critique to populism has led to important results: the birth of a mature democracy in America; the rise of the theory and the practice of revolution in the Tsarist Empire, a country plagued by the contradictions of a capitalist development in an underdeveloped territory (Lenin and bolshevism). Tronti carries on in his tranchant analysis of the Italian and European backgrounds: ‘In today's populism, there is no people and there is no prince. It is necessary to beat populism because it obscures the relations of power.’ Through its economic-mediatic-judicial apparatuses, neopopulism constantly shapes “trust-worthy people” similar to the "customers portfolio" of the branded world of neoliberal economy: Berlusconi’s “people” have been following the deeds of Arcore’s Sultan for twenty years; Grillo’s followers are adopting similar all-encompassing identifying processes, giving birth to the more confused impulses of the Italian social strata. With institutional fragility, fluctuating sovereignties and the oblivion of left-wing dogmas (class, status, conflict, solidarity, equality) how can we form people today? Is it possible to reinvent an anti-authoritarian people? Is it only the people or also politics itself that is lacking?
SN It seems to me that we have to radically re-think the figure of the People. We have to ask whether it continues to have any emancipatory or whether it is what it always was in political thought – the imagined totality out of which state power emerges; the body-politic that legitimises the sovereign. And we have already discussed the dangerous, violent, totalitarian and fascist potentiality of the People. So is there a genuine People - a really democratic People - beyond media and political manipulations? Or have we now reached the point where this idea is completely exhausted and we have to think political collectivity in new ways? My sense is the we have indeed reached this limit, and that the democratic and emancipatory energies once seen to be imbued in the People, have now completely dissipated. And it is perhaps as a symptom of this that we see the shadow of the People re-appearing in uncanny, violent and reactionary forms today. Despite the difficulties I have with the concept, the notion of the multitude in autonomist and post-autonomist thought – where difference or singularity are thought together with collectivity in such a way that one does dot subsume the other – sets out an alternative terrain for radical politics. Where the People - even in its democratic form – is associated with totality, identity and sovereignty, the multitude invokes heterogeneity, singularity and a rhizomatic organisation. Other theoretical figures allow us to think through the same limit in a similar way. For instance, I am interested in Max Stirner’s largely neglected (or unfairly derided) notion of the ‘union of egos’ – in which individual singularities can work together on collective projects without being sacrificed to sacred ideals, how they can collaborate without being incorporated into a totalitarian and transcendent body. It is something that allows us to think about the contingent openness of the political field in a different way.
      On Control
      OC In Postscript on the Societies of Control, published in 1990, Gilles Deleuze states that, thanks to the illuminating analyses of Michel Foucault, a new diagnosis of contemporary Western society has emerged. Deleuze's analysis is as follows: control societies have replaced disciplinary societies at the beginning of the twentieth century. He writes that ‘marketing is now the instrument of social control and it forms the impudent breed of our masters.’ Let us evaluate who stands beyond two very successful electoral adventures such as Forza Italia (Berlusconi’s first party) and M5S: respectively Publitalia 80 owned by Marcello Dell'Utri, and Casaleggio Asssociati owned by Gianroberto Casaleggio. The incontrovertible fact that two marketing companies stand behind these political projects reinforces Deleuze’s analysis. Mechanisms of control, media events such as exit polls and infinite surveys, im/penetrable databases, data as commodities, continuous spin doctoring, influencers that lead consensus on the net, opaque bots, digital squads, dominant echo-chambering. Evil media. These are the determinations of post-ideological (post-democratic?) neoliberalism. The misery of the new control techniques competes only with that of the glass house of transparency (web-control, of course). Jacques Ranciere says we live in the epoch of post- politics: how can we get out of the neo-liberal cage and free ourselves from the ideological consensus of its electoral products? What will the reconfiguration of left-wing politics be after the exhaustion of Marxist hegemony?

SN There is no question that democratic politics, as practiced under the neoliberal hegemony, has been utterly corrupted and degraded in the ways you describe. The transparency and accountability that these mediated forms of democracy supposedly enable, only produce a different opacity; politics as an impenetrable mediatic spectacle, a gigantic ‘reality TV’ show. And of course, there is the proliferation of these modes of neoliberal control and subjectification through the internet and social media, in which, in the narcissistic mirror of the blog or Facebook page, we construct ourselves and our relations with others in highly commodified and normalised ways, while sustaining the illusion that we are both expressing our individuality and directly changing the world. This is not to deny the importance of such networks as a tool of communication, organising and mobilizing, but there is a much broader problem with this that we need to be aware of. In an interview with Toni Negri, Deleuze says: 
‘You ask whether control or communication societies will lead to forms of resistance that might open the way for a communism understood as a “transversal organisation of free individuals”. Maybe, I don’t know. But it would be nothing to do with minorities speaking out. Maybe speech and communication have been corrupted. They’re thoroughly permeated by money – and not by accident but by their very nature. We’ve got to hijack speech. Creating has always been different from communicating. They key thing may be to create vacuoles of noncommunication, circuit-breakers, so we can elude control.’
So if communication has been corrupted – and we see this today particularly with the ubiquitous technologies of communication where instantaneous connection becomes something like a categorical imperative – then we need to think of how these circuits can be reconstituted, how circuit-breakers can be introduced. Anonymity and invisibility – found in anonymous hackers’ collectives, for instance - is an important element in the disruption of circuits of surveillance and control that operate through modern communication. 

Obviously elections as the previously dominant mode of political communication and representation have reached their limit. They are a sort of quasi-religious ritual aimed at the symbolic legitimation of power. It might, from time to time, and in specific circumstances, be strategically useful to participate in local and regional elections; I wouldn’t want to discount their importance entirely. But electoral politics should not be fetishised, and it cannot be the horizon of radical political struggles today. While some commentators might see the decline in interest and participation in electoral politics as a sign of a post-political malaise, I am not quite so pessimistic. It could be the beginning rather than the end of politics. At any rate, we should not mourn the breakdown of the electoral model of democracy or imagine that this is the only genuine site of politics. 
      On the Googlization of politics; the financial side of digi-populism
      OC The first decade of the 21st century has been characterized by the rise of neo-capitalism, referred to as cognitive; in this context a company like Google has established itself as the perfect synthesis of web-business as it does not compensate, if not in a small part, the content-carriers it lists. In Italy, following the electoral success of the Five Star Movement we witnessed a mutation of the typical prosumer of social networks: the new figure of the “prosumer-voter” was in fact born on Grillo’s blog - being essentially the one and only channel of information of the movement. The blog is a commercial activity and the high number of contacts and daily access has steadily increased in the last year. This digital militancy produces incomes both in the form of advertising and online sales of products such as DVDs, books and other material associated with the movement. All of this leads to the risk of googlization of politics whereby the modes of financing political activity radically change because of the "network surplus-value" - an expression coined by the researcher Matteo Pasquinelli to define that portion of incomes extracted from the practices of the web prosumers. Having said this, are we about to witness a shift of the financial paradigm applied to politics? Will the fundings from powerful lobbies or the general public be replaced by micro-donations via web (in the style of Obama’s) and by the exploitation of the prosumer-voters? And if so, will the dominant 'googlization of politics' involve any particular risks?

SN As I have suggested above, the proliferation of these new technologies of democratic communication and transparency have not made politics any more democratic. Far from it. And the new forms of blog-ocracy, micro-donations via the web, and other seemingly horizontal and participatory practices - while in some ways interesting phenomena – might be seen as a new form of neoliberal democratic technology. They are democratic fetishes, encouraging the illusion that we are genuinely participating in the political process in an unprecedented way, beyond the control of political elites. We have to be extremely sceptical about all this. The problem is that it entrenches the market model of democracy, reproducing the subject as a citizen-consumer, a political rational chooser. It is really, as you allude to, a form of political activity completely modelled around neoliberalism, which, after all, and in a perverse sort of way, is also a form of horizontalism in which we can all become self-entrepreneurs. Clearly, what is needed is an alternative horizontal politics in which this neoliberal governing rationality – which only reproduces the domination of Capital over political and social life – is directly challenged. Again, it seems to me, the solution is not to return to some imagined social democratic ideal, but to invent genuinely autonomous forms of political, social and economic life.

      On digital populism, on affective capitalismOC James Ballard once said that after the religions of the Book we should expect those of the Web. Some claim that, in fact, a first techno-religion already exists in the form of Affective Capitalism whose technological and communicative characteristics mirror those of network cultures. This notion of a secularized cult can be traced back to Walter Benjamin's thought but is enriched by a very contemporary mix of affective manipulation techniques, politics of neo-liberalism and political practices 2.0. The rise of the Five Stars Movement is the first successful example of italian digital populism; Obama’s campaign in the U.S.A. has witnessed an evolution of micro-targeting techniques - customized political offers via the web. The new frontier of both medical and economic research is producing a disturbing convergence of evolving ‘fields of knowledges’: control theories, neuro-economics and neuro-marketing. In 1976, in the optic of the ‘war-repression’ schema, Foucault entitled his course at the Collège de France ‘Society must be defended’. Now, faced with the general friability of all of us, how can we defend ourselves from the impact of affective capitalism and its digital practices? Can we put forward a differential, local knowledge which, as Foucault said, ‘owes its force only to the harshness with which it is opposed by everything surrounding it’?

SN The reference you make to Foucault is interesting, and perhaps it speaks to the way that behind neoliberalism and the networks of regulation and control, there is war; war on social life, war on the environment, war on any last vestiges of the commons; a war being fought against all of us. How do we defend ourselves against this onslaught? Part of the answer is, as Foucault would put it, an insurrection of marginalised knowledges and discourses, adopting a partisan perspective in which neutrality and universalism is rejected in favour of revealing and intensifying this field of combat. It is also a question of recognising that, paradoxically, all power, even that which seems insurmountable and to bear down upon us with such force, is only our power in an alienated form. It is a power that we sustain and reproduce, at the level of our daily practices. They are the bonds we renew daily. This is La Boëtie’s thesis of voluntary servitude, in which he claimed that we willingly comply with our own domination, largely out of habit. The solution to this - what produces a radical reversal in relations of power - is thus a recognition that we had the power all along, that we are always already free, and that all we need to do strip power of its illusions and abstractions is to no longer recognise it and participate in it. This would translate into changing our habits, or learning, as Sorel put it, ‘habits of liberty’. 

Saul Newman, Australian, lives and works in London. He is Professor of Political Theory at Goldsmiths College, University of London (UK). He specialises in - and has even coined the term - "post-anarchism". Post-anarchism generally indicates those philosophies that filter anarchist thought of the nineteenth century through the lens of continental post-structuralism of the twentieth century. In this context, the founding text of the post-anarchist thought is his 2001 book 'From Bakunin to Lacan. Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power' (Lanham MD: Lexington Books 2001).
Among the books published are also 'Power and Politics in poststructuralist Thought: New Theories of the Political' (London: Routledge, 2005); 'Unstable Universalities: Postmodernity and Radical Politics' (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007); 'Politics Most Unusual: Violence, Sovereignty and Democracy in the 'War on Terror' - Co-authored with Michael Levine and Damian Cox-(New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2009). 'The Politics of Post Anarchism' (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press: 2010);  'Max Stirner' (Palgrave 2011) and 'Agamben and the Politics of Human Rights' (co-authored with John Lechte) (Edinburgh University Press, 2013).

Painting: Stelios Faitakis

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