The Eclipse of Politics (3 of 4): Strategy Degree Zero

The Deleuzean opposition between the molecular and the molar, between flux and state-coding, were coeval with the liberal turn of deregulations and promised to lead the great capitalist decoding and the market deterritorialization to their ultimate consequences. “But which revolutionary path should one choose? Is there one? To retreat from the global market in an uncanny reenactment of the ‘fascist economic solution?’ Or go in the opposite direction, instead, that is to say even further following the movement of the market, of decoding and of deterritorialization? But then again perhaps fluxes are not yet deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough, from the point of view of a theory and a practice of high-Schizophrenia fluxes. The idea then was not to retreat from this process altogether, but to go even further and ‘to accelerate its movement’ as Nietzsche says. Truly, in this respect, we haven’t yet seen anything.”1

In order to “free political action from any form of unifying and totalizing paranoia,” Foucault brought together the “two legacies of fascism and Stalinism” under the custodial notion of totalitarianism. The crashing of the revolt of Budapest in 1956 seemed to him in retrospect as the telling event of this configuration. His critical revision of the political paradigm of modernity and his tardy return to the Enlightenments were perhaps a belated acknowledgement, albeit reluctant, of how difficult it was to reflect on the similarities and differences of bureaucratic and racial forms of totalitarianism. “To think Stalinism was awkward,” he conceded laconically. It was however, necessary for one who wanted to resist the unreasonableness of the world. Others engaged in this line of thought and their research remained unrecognized.

After the eruption of 68, State politics have resumed the Left initiative since 1972 with the signature of the government’s common Program. It has thus started a mass movement of retreat from, and desertion of, the strategic field. The exclusion of the question of power became grounds for the division of labor between politics and philosophy and a pretext to a dubious compromise between the well-tempered politics of management and philosophical radicalism. Later, Foucault would define this new “theoretical morality” as “anti-strategic”: “to be respectful when a singularity rises up and uncompromising as soon as power violates the universal.” (Dits & écrits, 794) By favoring the exploration of new fields of militant engagement, this retreat has had its indisputable share of positive outcomes. It reflected nonetheless a sense of confusion, disillusionment or renunciation: “I have no wish to play the role of the one who prescribes solutions. I believe that the role of the intellectual today is not to lay down laws, to put forth solutions, to prophesy, because in this role, the intellectual can only be in the service of a given power status […] I refuse the function of the intellectual as the look-alike of and at the same time the alibi for a political party.”

Foucault was thus aiming at exorcising with the same gesture the triple function of the intellectual: that of the roman legislator, the Greek master of wisdom or the Jewish prophet, to modestly contend himself—but was it really a question of modesty?—with the Socratic role of the “destroyer of facts.” The philosopher- critic then claimed to be humbly playing the role of the journalist “gripped by the anger of facts.” The formula did not lack flourish. Coming down from great ambitions and great expectations, big systems and fabulous political programs, Foucault explained that one had to start again at ground level and think the world as revealed from the point of view of little facts.

And yet, Foucault was not fooled by the illusory and even demagogic aspect implied in the opposition between “little true facts” and big vague ideas, in a sense, this was an apologia for “dust defying the cloud.” A fact without a concept is in reality nothing other than an empirical illusion, because the clouds of dust are not simple aggregates of elementary particles.

Falling back on journalistic everyday life was another tendency indicative of a strategic impasse. It was an act of heading away from the three-fold question of power, classes and revolutionary politics. The powerlessness with regard to the recovery of the bureaucratic State (after the Chinese Cultural Revolution, after the Prague Spring or after May 68) was favorable to the proliferation of practices related to the question of power into ones related to powers. The strategic aporia helped disclose behind the great tutelary figure of the Leviathan, the network of relations and power games: “power is built and set to work out of a multitude of questions and effects of power.” The distinction between prior or underlying State power and power relations also allowed for the articulation of different political temporalities that were so often conflated. Thinking of power as “something that circulates and functions only in series,” Foucault rid us of “the Leviathan model,” and pluralized the revolution “in many types of revolutions and various possible subversive codifications.”2

But what has come of the State as the revolutions scattered into pieces? No matter what Foucault claimed times and times again that “power is strategic games,” resistance to power relations did not nonetheless assent to a retreat before the question of the State. The State was no longer considered as the point where in a given historical configuration, these power relations and relation of force were knotted and stitched, but more like a power relation among many others. Programmatic strategy could then be dissolved in the processual sum of oppositions. As long as “there is a relation of power, there is a possibility of resistance and as such neither of them will run the risk of being trapped.” (Dits & écrits, 266) Verily! If “there is no society without power relations,” and if these relations are the unsurpassable horizon of social relations, what would become of the State as specific historic form? What about its function from the point of view of strategies of domination if power relations, despite their complexity and their diversity, end up “organizing in some sort of a global form” or in “a tangle of power relations which allow one class to be dominant of over another?” (Dits & écrits, 379) In short, is the question of the State solvable into that of powers? Is the question of class struggle and exploitation solvable into that of biopolitics?

The criticism of powers resonates with the fading away of the actors of subversion who were sublimated by the grand proletarian Subject. Its main virtue was that it promised to liberate “political action from all forms of unifying and totalizing paranoia.” As Deleuze says, underneath the reproduction of classes, there is always “a variable map of classes.” Foucault, on the other hand, reserved for the notion of class a strategic function instead of a simple sociological one. “Sociologists are rekindling endless discussions in order to understand what a class is and what it is made of. But, until now, no one addressed or went deeper into the question of understanding what struggle is. What do we mean by struggle when we talk about class struggle? What I would like to discuss in Marx is not the question of the sociology of classes, but rather the strategic method with regard to struggle.” (Dits & écrits, 379) This imperative to think class struggle from a strategic lens drew Foucault closer to Marx more than he could have imagined or hoped while it distanced him from the positivist vulgate of his epigones. But the call for a strategic representation of classes came about at a time when the parameters of a strategic thinking had already started to falter and when social affiliations had become blurred. If class struggle was no longer, for Foucault, the ultima ratio of the exercise of power, it still constituted “the guarantee of intelligibility of certain major strategies.” As such, “it is strategy which allows the bourgeois class to exert its control and to be what it is.” This does not mean that it could be represented in the guise of a subject, because “bourgeois power managed to elaborate major strategies without the need to attribute a subject to them.” (Dits & écrits, 306). A history “with neither a subject nor an end” logically then, implied a strategy of, in Bourdieu’s words, “unconscious strategies” and subjectivities without a subject. The archeology of resistance thus worked in a beneficial way towards breaking up the imaginary hypostasis of the Proletariat as demiurge of History. At the same time, it aimed at resuscitating pre-capitalist configurations of the masses, the plebe or the multitude. The context was favorable to such notions. Disappointed by the misadventures of the red Proletariat, the “new philosophy” was discovering with rapture the secular virtues of the plebe embodied by eternal muzhiks such as Tolstoy or Soljenitsyn. Unlike the juvenile populism of the 19th century which marked the transition from a belated feudal order to capitalist modernity, this senile neo-populism turned out to be entirely regressive. The new “friends of the people” who thus pervaded the books of Andre Glucksmann were perfectly attuned with the angelic neo-mysticism of Christian Jambert and Guy Lardreau.

More perceptive, Foucault spotted the trap in this line of thought. “Undoubtedly, the plebe must not be conceived as the permanent fund of history, the ultimate aim of all subjections, the never entirely put out hearth of all revolts. There is no doubt that there is no such thing as a sociological reality of the plebe […] but there is indeed always something, perhaps no longer the more or less docile or recalcitrant raw material, but rather the centrifugal movement, the reverse energy, the time out. There is no doubt that the plebe does not exist, but there is some plebe material, a plebian share […].” (Dits & écrits, 421) Despite its sociological unconsciousness, the plebe has thus worked as the ontological foundation of the irreducible obstinacy of an always-renascent opposition. The more or less accepted farewell to the proletariat of the socialist saga did as such resuscitate out of its ashes the masses and the multitudes, which were anterior to the political category of the people. In the writings of the new philosophers, the plebe has thus become the a-temporal antithesis of the totalitarian subjugation of the Gulag, which they claimed to rediscover thanks to Soljenitsyne by haughtily ignoring Victor Serge, David Rousset, Anton Ciliga and many others.

Alain Badiou and his friends of the Cahiers de Yenan were worried about this “eastern wind.” Without once again going through the diagnosis of Benjamin or Arendt on fascism qua the expression of the decomposition of classes into masses, Badiou and his friends saw in the plebian decomposition of class struggle a new form of fasciszation. They went as far as mapping two “social-fascist” temptations at work in the “anti-militant fury of the Deleuzean massists” or in Althusserian scientism. Slaying the rhizome as the “potato fascism,” they saw emerging in the raging storm of the multiple, in the assault of the acentric tuber against “whichever centers,” in the infinite enumeration of occasional forces, in the disparate sum of revolts; a hatred of militantism under the pretense of liberation from the “militant ideal” (Cahiers de Yenan, p. 43)

This was about underestimating the impact of the Deleuzean critique, which dispelled the illusions of a unifying History driven by a demiurgic Subject. But the uppercase Subject was sovereign; having been before that eaten away by linguistics and psychoanalysis, its decomposition has in fact led to the affirmation of subjectivities in bits and pieces and to the subjectivation of autistic subjects turned over to the whims of their desires.3 In this field of ruins, it became increasingly difficult for politics to find its young ones again. The enterprise of the Subject’s demolition was, however, consistent with the rejection of the fetishization of History in the guise of meta-subjects. Didn’t the critical function of the Foucauldian genealogical history, in the final analysis consist in showing modestly that social relations have always taken shape in trivial circumstances at the confluence of encounters and chance?

By the same token, the work of demystification led to the surrender of strategy as revealed by the denigration of the prophetic function. The prophet, according to Deleuze, is always in the grip of “an action delirium” rather than bearer of a fertile imagination. Thus, betrayal became the “obsession” of the militant activist. It was more like being mistaken about the performative function—or simply the political one—of prophecy, a mistake one can also find in Foucault when he reproached Marx’s historical analyses with leading in their final conclusion to words which are most of the time incorrect. Stating that: “the goal in struggles is always kept secret by prophesy,” he was categorically denying his own books the least prophetic ambition to which he opposed bare action that wears itself out in its own immediate efficiency. Paying a tribute to Maurice Clavel, he thus sang the praises of an expectation without prophecy. “Clavel was not a prophet; he was not waiting for the moment of the last-ditch.” A rather strange and interesting idea about the function of prophecy here identified with the militant delirium. Unlike the oracle or the soothsayer, the ancient prophet could be seen as the pre-political figure of the strategist. His conditional prediction is meant to sound the alarm. It calls for action so that, while there is still time, it can ward off the heralded catastrophe.

Modern programmatic thinking seems then like a secular form of strategic prophecy conflating three supplementary ideas: the choice of a means appropriate to the pursuit of an end, the preemption of the game by predicting which course of action the opponents would follow, and the sum of resources that are mobilized to secure victory. If strategy resides in “the choice of winning solutions,” and if the disenchantment of the age leads to the conclusion that there is no longer a possible winning solution; obviously, the notion of strategy reduced to its degree zero would no longer make much sense. As Guattari once put it, the pragmatic logic of processual transformations will then overtake the programmatic logic of the adjustment of means to a target goal. The ethics of politics metamorphoses into an anti-political moralism. There will remain nothing other than a categorical imperative of resistance or a formalism of faithfulness to the event.

Indicative of these dark times, strategic closure in Deleuze seems to be contradicted by the proliferation of possibilities, by the opening up of a creative temporality and by the contingency of becomings. If power is exercised rather than possessed; this is in fact, a “strategic crisis” through and through and as such it becomes a question of a strategy of forces continuously opposing themselves to their own stratification. This is perhaps as confusing as the Deleuzean reflexive statement about a society that “strategizes.” (Deux Regimes, 116) What then remains of a politics without a program, of a tightened bow shooting an arrow that no longer aims at any target? Guy Debord established a close link between the meaning of historicity and the possibility of a strategic thinking engaged in an open temporality. A State whose administration suffers a serious deficit of historical knowledge “can no longer be run strategically.” What is relevant to the running of a State is all the more relevant to any politics aiming at changing a given established order. However, the substitution of history with becoming abolishes precisely the horizon of expectation towards which every strategic project should tend.


Show 3 footnotes

  1. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p. 285. F. Guattari was aware of this affinity between the logic of the market and molecular logic. “The molecular question is entirely connected to the new type of international market which has been established.” (Micropolitiques, p. 174). The opposition with the molar or the molecular, he claimed, was a trap because “social struggles are both molecular and molar” (Ibid., p. 179). The molar, which crystallizes the balance of power, is necessary on condition that it is not locked up in petrified identities and only if it continuously sets in motion the flux of singularities, which resist it. Following the market detrritorialization, Toni Negri has clearly chosen another option, by pushing even further forward the movement of the market and of decoding to accelerate the process of imperial globalization as if this supreme stage of capitalism had to be the antechamber of its inescapable overcoming. Unfortunately, since Deleuze and Guattari made this diagnosis, we have indeed seen quite enough.
  2. See Daniel Bensaid, La Revolution et le pouvoir, Paris, Stock, 1976.
  3. Well aware of the danger entailed in folding the processes of subjectivation and singularization and in exchanging the lost historic Subject with the liberal subjects of possessive individualism, Felix Guattari insists on the social character of the individual defined as the individual concluding phase of a system of representations. He even defined individuality as “alienation of processes of singularization” (Micropolitiques, p. 198)
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