UPDATE: Anyone reading this post should supplement it, at the very least, with Reza’s brief comment’s below, and with this great piece by Ali Alizadeh’s piece here.
Michel Foucault’s Big Mistake
What can we learn from the fragile situation currently unfolding, or perhaps unraveling, in Iran? We are told to be careful asking such questions as intellectuals, for we run the risk of ‘fetishizing the other’, claiming it as an object of ‘interpassive authenticity’, the Other scene where politics actually happens…and so on. Yet despite this risk, there is perhaps an even greater risk to passing over it in silence. Zizek, in the strongest chapter of his recent tome In Defense of Lost Causes, entitled “Radical Intellectuals, or, Why Heidegger Took the Right Step (Albeit in the Wrong Direction) in 1933”, makes this argument with regards not only to Heidegger, but to Michel Foucault as well. (An early version of this chapter is available online here.)
Contra the commonplace that Foucault’s infamous engagement with the Iranian revolution was an embarrassing mistake, after which he had to rethink his conceptual work so as to exclude the possibility of such errors recurring in the future (the turn toward an aesthetics of pleasure and the self, et cetera), Zizek unsuprisingly claims the exact opposite is in fact the case: Foucault’s Iranian engagement was an absolutely appropriate and correct gesture, “the best thing he ever did”. [107-8; all citations from the book] According to Zizek, the problem was not that he was too reckless, and should have confined his theoretical work to a more modest focus on individual bodies and pleasures. Rather, the trouble with Foucault was that he was theoretically ill-equipped to justify his engagement, or in other words, to correctly position himself, as an intellectual, within it. He made the right move, but for the wrong reason. 
Foucault turns around Kant’s famous theory of revolutionary enthusiasm put forth in the “Conflict of Faculties”: for Kant, the true significance of the French Revolution was the enthusiasm the spectacle inspired in the people of Europe, not the concrete affairs on the ground. For Foucault, on the other hand, the disposition of onlookers of the Iranian Revolution was one of cold, scientific calculation, essentially trying to ‘understand’ the event rather than ‘believe’ in it. It is on the ground, within the actions of the Iranian people themselves, that enthusiasm figures. Zizek proposes a Lacanian reading of the dichotomy between these two positions, by claiming that the enthusiasm of the engaged participants, motivating the revolutionary activity on the ground, was itself in effect a ‘performance’ for the gaze of the onlooking world, a spectacle staged for the big Other, in order to inspire and enthuse that Other. The potentially enthusiastic onlooker’s gaze is directly inscribed into the field of direct engagement and action itself, motivating these activities. [108-9] Iranian State TV seem to confirm this theory, in that they are now blaming the current civil unrest on ‘foreign media’. [link]
For Zizek, the revolution was itself nothing but this spectacle as spectacle, as staged for the other: mediation ceases to be an indifferent background, and is instead raised to the level of an end itself. Zizek claims this reading reveals the impact on Foucault of Deleuze’s concept of event as a mere surface phenomenon that gains a certain autonomy over its actual causes, becoming more than a superficial image. This autonomous image has the capacity restructure the causal circumstances that had conditioned it, but from which it was apparently not deducible, retroactively ‘reading itself into’ the past. (Despite the difference between Badiou’s and Deleuze’s conception of ‘event’, there is nonetheless an obvious parallel here.)
Finally, Foucault goes on to distinguish between ‘revolt’, as precisely the suspending force exerted by the event over its actual causes, and ‘revolution’ as the derivation of a new positive order from that disturbance, its reintegration into a new ‘causal chain’.  Zizek implies that it is here that we begin to see the weakness of Foucault’s engagement: there was ultimately no room for a conclusion to the events of the revolt that would remain faithful to the enthusiasm that had caused it; the revolt must be betrayed. Foucault essentially had no way out. He finally concludes that the negative outcome of the revolution – the installation of an oppressive theocratic regime, subjugation of women, et cetera – was inscribed into the revolt in the first place. Enthusiasm is never ’empty’ and ‘negative’, a ‘pure’ opposition to the existing order. It rather must already be committed to another positive order; revolt must contain its revolutionary re-assimilation within itself, as a necessary condition. 
Zizek goes on to claim that Foucault’s conclusion is the wrong one, and defends this on the basis of the inadequacy of his theory of dispositifs. In Foucault’s earliest work, the structures of power exclude subjectivity; later, we are told they produce it; and in his final works he claims that subjects can affect these structures through an ethico-aesthetic practice of self. But there is no way for subjects to directly intervene in, challenge, undermine, and ultimately replace these structures with something fundamentally different. This is why, for Zizek, the Lacanian big Other is superior to the Foucauldian dispositif, insofar as it only exist as a virtual presupposition posited by the subject itself, and hence is fundamentally vulnerable to subjective intervention. [113-4]
Zizek claims that the initial revolt should not be seen as originally contaminated by its (counter)revolutionary re-assimilation. While the event would inevitably need to be integrated into a new social order, it in itself was a pure opening or break, from which anything could have resulted. Moreover, for Zizek, the role of the intellectual is essentially to preserve this revolutionary, utopian glimmer within the new positive order, to prevent its disavowal or ‘vanishing’. The ordering of the new social body around this ‘fragile absolute’ of divine violence was precisely what Foucault was incapable of imagining, being theoretically limited as he was.
Hence, for Zizek, the role of the intellectual is to preserve and retain the force of suspension, the utopian opening, or the ‘principle of hope’ described by Ernst Bloch, which immanence correctly detects in the events now unfolding in Tehran. Such an opening is like a constant suspension of the coordinates of law and normativity, which may be invoked and employed anywhere. Now, this conception of revolutionary violence as instrumentalized by the new social order bears an unmistakable proximity with Walter Benjamin’s description of ‘mythic violence’ and Giorgio Agamben’s account of the state of exception. How, then, are we to differentiate them?
Zizek’s own failure to deal with this proximity leads to his general distaste for Agamben’s political position. [337-8] Nonetheless, the correct approach is not difficult to discern. If, as Foucault had already decided, the structure of sovereignty was no longer the dominant form of power, it is because with the rise of capitalism, the rule of law is gradually replaced by a generalized state of exception, a suspension of law which has itself become the rule. Indeed, the sovereignty of nation-states is today constantly under attack by neoliberal advocates of ‘unlimited capitalization’ – and not just that of poor, underdeveloped states, for, as the Bush administration so definitively demonstrated, even the last superpower must now bow before capital. (One of the merit’s of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine is how it so effectively depicts the dismantling of US sovereignty, piece by piece, in the name of privatization under President Bush.)
Zizek himself, however, is resistant to the ‘pseudo-Lacanian dogma’ that, in such a situation, what we need is to install a new Law, a new effective authority (although he tends to vacillate on this issue). What, then, is to be done in the face of such a global imposition of the suspension of Law for the sake of Capital? Here we should turn to Walter Benjamin, a key common influence of both Zizek and Agamben:
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism. [Eight Thesis on History]
We shouldn’t be thrown by the reference to fascism here: unlike his Frankfurt School compatriots, Benjamin does not metonymically replace the Marxist critique of capitalism with a critique of fascism. Such a shift too easily backslides into a resigned acceptance of ‘peaceful, democratic’ capitalism against its authoritarian variant, as we see on the left today.
Rather, if Benjamin sees fascism as the enemy proper, this is because under the condition of capitalism, fascism becomes a ruthless exploiter of popular enthusiasm, or ‘events’, which could otherwise potentially lead to capital’s undoing. Far from the kind of political calculation wherein ‘the enemy of the enemy is my friend’, Benjamin’s revolutionary position seeks to subtract itself from the antagonism between capitalism and fascism, which, in the last instance, is not even genuinely antagonistic: fascism rather serves as capital’s last, and most terrible, line of defense against revolutionary enthusiasm, co-opting it rather than undermining it. Much like the contemporary opposition between liberal multiculturalism and religious fundamentalism, these two apparent opponents are really two sides of the same coin, and must be rejected together.
In the Name of Democracy
This brings us to the events currently unfolding in Tehran, which appear to be overdetermined by the dyad of liberal openness and fundamentalist authority. President Ahmadinejad had become, throughout the Bush years, the ultimate symbol ‘Islamo-fascism’: his defiance of the ‘hegemony’ of freedom and democracy championed by the US, his denial of the Shoah and threats against Israel, and of course, his alleged support of terrorist groups and a secret nuclear weapons program. Yet since President Obama’s election, Ahmadinejad’s hard-line position was seemingly deprived of its ‘constitutive other’. Moreover, the enormous post-revolutionary baby-boom finally began to register, as a remarkable proportion of the electorate were now young, relatively progressive city dwellers with an affinity for the new face of US liberalism.
So, when the election came, it seemed that Ahmadinejad was doomed to be replaced. Yet, unsurprisingly, he claimed victory under highly contentious circumstances, leading to mass protest, rioting, and revolt, which is still going on right now. However, the case is not a straightforward rejection of authoritarianism: as Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb (among others) has pointed out, Ahmadinejad’s principle opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, far from being a revolutionary freedom fighter, represents the interests of the rich and powerful, and is pursuing a neoliberal overhaul of Iran’s closed economy. It’s no wonder Iran’s rural poor supported Ahmadinejad: fundamentalism aside, he stood for economic protectionism in the face of the neoliberal tactic of rapid exposure to the world market, which has so consistently proved devastating for rural populations of underdeveloped countries.
Does this mean that the popular revolt that has ensued in support of Mousavi amounts to the latest member in the series including movements like Solidarity, Neues Forum, and the Velvet Revolution, in which the rejection of communist oppression in the name of freedom amounted to the replacement of state socialism with neoliberal privatization and deregulation? Are the Iranian freedom fighters unknowningly playing into the hands of global capital? Should we cynically condemn the ongoing revolt as championing the changing hands of power from a repressive regime to a more ‘tolerant’, but ultimately more dangerous one? (And, as Seymour points out, we have reason to believe that Mousavi may be just as repressive a ruler as Ahmadinejad, if not worse.)
Here we should return to Zizek, whose political theory is (arguably) motivated above all by an attempt to rescue the ‘utopian potential’ evidenced in these movements from its erasure in the name of capitalist liberalism (doubtless because of the obscure disaster that befell Yugoslavia). The enthusiastic rejection of the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s reelection is irreducible to the nominal support of Mousavi, whose function is essentially that of a floating signifier. Rather, what is potentially at stake in this revolt is the entire legacy of the conservative regime installed by the Iranian revolution, which, despite its democratic concessions, is ultimately a theocratic dictatorship under the Ayatollah Khamenei.
Here we have the familiar figure of a nominal democracy and a popular movement of the ‘really excluded’, who, in the name of the allegedly democratic virtues of their oppressors, effectively use the discourse of their masters against them and hegemonize the name ‘democracy’ anew. This, for example, was the basis of the abolitionist, women’s suffrage, and civil rights movements in the United States. And while it is probably unlikely that the Ayatollah will be deposed, or even actively challenged by the resistance, the symbol of the rejection of Iran’s false democracy is still effective.
In this sense, the question of whether or not Ahmadinejad actually won is irrelevant: whatever the ‘true’ outcome of the election, the popular result was effectively a referendum more democratic than democracy itself. The revolt amounts to a de facto vote of no confidence in the very form of Iran’s democratic process. So, even though the events encompass partisans on both sides of the race, and even though those active in protests may not represent the majority of the population, the instability of the population is the only ‘vote’ that actually counts.
Democracy, as popular sovereignty, can only work if there is some institutional support by way of which the ‘popular’ or majority position can be decided: elections, parliament, separation of powers, et cetera. Yet if these institutional supports cannot keep the society in question from coming apart, if the state does not effectively maintain its sovereignty (which, according to Agamben and the tradition he draws upon, is essentially the power to decide when and where the law can be legitimately suspended), then democracy does not properly exist. What we have in the revolt is the seizing of sovereign power directly by the masses (what Benjamin calls ‘sovereign violence’), bypassing any democratic legitimation of the majority and creating a state of emergency in spite of the state’s monopoly on its legitimate declaration.
The outcome of these revolts will almost certainly either be the re-stabilization of society and retention of power by Ahmadinejad, or the ceding of power to Mousavi’s neoliberal reformism and the temporary satiation of popular discontent. Even in the most extreme scenario, perhaps the revolts could grow so massive that the Ayatollah’s regime would itself be challenged, in which case civil war would likely ensue. It doesn’t seem like there are many really appealing options, it’s a choice between masters.
Undead Labor: Marxist Repetitions
Yet why is there such a notable absence of a positive position? Why is the field so thoroughly overdetermined by the dyad of religious fundamentalism and neoliberal democracy? This is where Zizek resolutely reasserts the role of the intellectual in popular revolts: when ‘no one really knows what to do’, we shouldn’t simply act out without a goal, or in the name of a ‘different master’. We should, on the contrary, ‘withdraw’ from acting, and instead carefully think and reflect upon what might be possible. His point, far from the apparent quietist isolation it implies, is that we don’t even know what it is possible to do, that the coordinates of what is possible may be fundamentally plastic, and so to act without reflection is to consign oneself to a field of possibilities not of one’s choosing.
Here we can think of Marx’s famous dictum from the “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living.
Yet Marx, far from claiming that we are constrained to a field of possibilities not of our making, is rather trying to challenge us to question the weight of dead tradition. Indeed, if we make the rather short conceptual leap from the ‘weight of dead tradition’ to capital as ‘dead labor’, we quickly realize that the goal of the revolutionary proletariat is to appropriate the means of production, or in this case, the ‘weight of dead tradition’ as the means of man’s production of history. Hence the theory of historical repetition which follows suit:
And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.
Zizek never tires of repeating his claim that, for Marx, the essence of revolution lies in this repetition of the past, or in the rediscovery of the ‘utopian opening’ that is assimilated in the establishment of sovereign power, becoming a ‘vanishing mediator’. [See, for example, Lost Causes p 140-1; 196; and 394] Revolution must seize upon these spirits of the past, these failed revolutions now ‘transposed into a virtual state’, in order to redeem the missed potentials within the past that are still waiting to be realized. For example: we all know that the October Revolution ended in a totalitarian catastrophe. Nonetheless, it could have gone differently, there are all sorts of counter-factual scenarios in which things could have been otherwise. These potentials may not have actually come to pass, but they can still effect us and impact us today, and in that way retroactively redeem themselves as really effective and not simple flights of fancy. We can still ‘inherit’ that which did not occur, and hence constitute its actual legacy.
This notion of revolutionary redemption of the ‘vanished’ past, moreover, is the very crux of Benjamin’s Theses, which I am tempted at this point to cite at great length. [I’ll just link instead, but this translation is not great; check out the version in Selected Writings Volume 4, if you can]. Here we must again raise a crucial question with regards to capital. We said above that capital itself is dead labor, or ‘the weight of dead tradition’, qua means of production. The capitalist as owner of dead labor appropriates surplus value as the income afforded to the ‘labor’ of capital, or the labor of dead labor itself, insofar as it is the necessary condition of the productivity of living labor. The capitalist justifies this payment – profit – as compensation for the risk to which he exposes his dead labor in investing it in a given enterprise – which may or may not be profitable, or may even lead to the total loss of the investment. ‘Undead labor’ is the ‘labor’ of capital in exposing itself to the possibility of its own loss or disappearance, and profit is the ‘price on its head’. In this sense, the analogy of dead labor with the ‘weight of dead tradition’ becomes more than a useful allusion. Here we should consider the dictum from the Manifesto, which is worth quoting in full:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. [emphasis mine]
Whereas, in past epochs, the dominant mode of production preserved and reinforced their dead (to quote the most recent Terminator sequel, “The difference between us and the machines is that we bury our dead”),while revolutions served to appropriate and effective undermine the dead, by supplanting the legacy of the former regime with the legacy of their own, the capitalist regime sustains itself through a constant revolutionizing of its own means, or a constant undermining of its own legacy, a constant betrayal of ‘dead tradition’. This betrayal resides in the fact that capital manages to reproduce itself by appropriating surplus value and adding it to itself, through profit as ‘wage’ afforded to dead labor, or in other words, through payment rewarded for an endless gambling with the legacy of the dead. This legacy, to be clear, is that which is left of those who labored for their whole lives, who had nothing of value to their name but their offspring, that which they produce (to invoke the literal meaning of the Latin proletarius).
When capital appropriates this legacy, thereby valuing or ‘appraising’ it, they do so not even in terms of the concrete product, but in terms of the pure cost, the cash equivalent, of the labor performed – the legacy amounts to the indifferent quantity derived from the difference between value added and cost of labor. This fact is attested to in that the means of production are worth only what is invested in them, on the one hand, and the excess they allow to be extracted from labor, on the other. Thus, when the capitalist ‘wagers’ his wealth on an investment, he is wagering the very existence of the legacy of generations of workers, either forcing it to work even from beyond the grave, or exposing it to total annihilation, the ‘second death’ of dead labor.
Similarly, the revolutionary, in previous instances, wagered their own legacy upon the success of their endeavors, for upon their defeat, they would be condemned or even liquidated, in order to protect the legacy of those in power. Capital functions through a constant risking of legacies, and constant extraction of surplus from a virtual, unaccomplished and abstract labor (where the legacy of the dead is minimally reinvested in the reproduction of the laboring class). Dead labor, as the weight of dead tradition, is always suspended, always submitted to the whims of the capitalist, and always vulnerable to liquidation: not only death, but the total forgetting of the dead, the loss of every last trace of their existence.
As we can see, the relationship between revolutions and their virtual legacies is no longer straightforward under capitalism. The question now becomes how to revolutionize an order that is constantly revolutionizing itself, as Zizek likes to say. Yet capital’s revolutionizing is not itself revolutionary, in that it maintains the weight of dead tradition as a condition limiting the history producing activity of labor. It hinders this capacity, in that it undermines every possibility of a lasting legacy. So while law itself may be globally suspended, and selectively applied at the whim of capital (in that, in the very least, capital can ‘opt out’, refuse to invest itself, and thereby crash the economy and society along with it), the force-of-law is still in effect. Yet law is no longer a substantial demand, a definite prescription or proscription, it no longer has any content or reason. It becomes a virtualized law, a law without significance, and hence a global inspecific threat. [I owe this concept of a force-of-law-without-significance to Giorgio Agamben. See his State of Exception, ch 2] And while this may sound like a totalitarian nightmare, there is in fact no master who is actually in charge: capital flight is a cumulative effect of an acephalous, anonymous pool of investors, most of whom aren’t even people, but rather corporations or funds, investing and withdrawing on the basis of abstract algorithms.
Now for the most part, domestic criminal law functions as normal – in this country. It is, on the other hand, financial regulatory laws, statutes concerning white-collar crime, and even international law, that are most clearly suspended at capital’s arbitrary whim. Nonetheless, capital and its neoliberal policy proponents have not spared the normalcy of every nation equally, as we know from Argentina, Russia, Iraq, and countless others. In effect, it is not unreasonable to imagine capital being capable of suspending or selectively enforcing any sort of arbitrary law, with the state as its proxy, and this does in fact happen all over the world. And by way of the state, capital is always capable of generating equally arbitrary new laws, just as it is equally capable of liquefying and inventing cultural traditions and identities. The national identity of practically every existing state (the majority of which are younger than the rise of capitalism) is either wholly artificial, or was derived from that of a dominant ethnic group among others; and, in either case, it was born through the assimilation or elimination of countless rivals.
Deleuze and Guattari thus describe law under capitalism, reduced to a pure arbitrary decisional form/force, by way of which actual laws can be created or suspended at will, as an axiomatic system, irreducible to its actual axioms. The question then becomes how to circumvent this axiomatic, or in other words, how to ‘suspend’ not only the law, but the force-of-law as well? How to prevent ‘legal violence’, in the sense of law being reduced to a kind of weapon for capital? We must remember that the violent imposition of the law itself, which is at first illegal – this is what Benjamin calls law-constituting violence or mythic violence – does not originally cover itself, it introduces a gap in which it has suspended the existing law but not yet imposed a new order in its place. This is the ‘utopian opening’ of which Zizek speaks.
Capital seizes the force-of-law, not in order to install a new tradition and law in the place of the suspended, but in order to maintain suspension indefinitely. In such circumstances, ‘laws’ are only good as their capacity to be enforced, and are no longer backed up by a monopoly on legitimate enforcement. Capital, and its corporate bodies, impose law to the extent that they are capable, and withdraw when this capability is exhausted. So the Marxist aim of ‘appropriating the means of production’ must be properly treated as intended to wrest from capital its material capacity to exert force over others, and insodoing, to maintain the force-of-law.
Here is the crucial point: if any use of force to impose the law, be it ‘legitimately’ or arbitrarily, amounts to an instance of effective force-of-law, then we cannot rightly free ourselves from capital without ceasing to do so. Otherwise, post-capitalism would amount to a kind of endless global civil war over the control of capital reserves, a kind of post-historical primitive accumulation. The only use of force that is then consistently possible is a force used to prevent the forceful imposition of law: not a force that magically ‘cancels itself out’, but a revolutionary force defending dead labor (as means of production of force) liberated from its capitalization from being reemployed in the name of a new propriety, or a new proper, legitimate, legal use (a use which is ultimately tautologically self-justifying). There is no longer any legitimate ‘owner’ to prescribe legitimate use.
Beyond Capital – Improper Use
This all follows quite naturally from Agamben’s legal theory, despite the fact that he does not explicitly describe such a defense of suspension. Nonetheless, he does very clearly describe how society can function once law and violence are completely separated: citing Benjamin and Kafka, he provides an image of law as the object of ‘study’ or ‘play’, a kind of collective experimentation with normative structures that are never imposed or enforced, but only endlessly tested, revised, and reimagined. [63-4]
Elsewhere, in his book on Paul, he links this to an ‘improper’, ‘illegitimate’ use of everything, from simple tools up to and including one’s very identity. Because the imposition of prescription is itself suspended, every use becomes an experiment in the possible use of a now ‘useless’ world. This goes equally for legal prescriptions, indeed, for ‘law’ itself. It’s worth quoting his description here:
the enigmatic image of a law that is studied but no longer practiced [enforced] corresponds, as a sort of remnant, to the unmasking of mythico-juridical violence effected by pure violence. There is, therefore, still a possible figure of law after its nexus with violence and power has been deposed, but it is a law that no longer has force or application, like the one in which the “new attorney,” leafing though “our old books,” buries himself in study, or like the one that Foucault may have had in mind when he spoke of a “new law” that has been freed from all discipline and all relation to sovereignty. […] What can be the meaning of a law that survives its deposition in such a way? The difficulty Benjamin faces here corresponds to a problem that can be formulated (and it was effectively formulated for the first time in primitive Christianity and then later in the Marxist tradition) in these terms: What becomes of the law after its messianic fulfillment? (This is the controversy that opposes Paul to the Jews of his time.) And what becomes of the law in a society without classes? […] Kafka’s characters – and this is why they interest us – have to do with this spectral figure of the law in the state of exception; they seek, each one following his or her own strategy, to “study” and deactivate it, to “play” with it. [63-4]
Agamben thus explicitly ties his political-theological project to the Marxist tradition, seeing its culmination in Benjamin. The society without classes must also be without private property, or every further, without an enforcible ‘propriety’ or proper use of any kind. The use of the entire means of production, the entire weight of dead labor or tradition, is subordinated to an improper use, while the only remaining imperative is to maintain total impropriety by preventing every attempt at forcible appropriation/enforcement. This notion of classless society is entirely compatible with Marx’s defintion of Communism in The German Ideology: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” Far from a negative definition, Communism is a practice that abolishes the existing state of things by deactivating its legitimacy while indefinitely experimenting with the remnants that remain, sustaining the expropriation of capital by way of a praxis of improper or inappropriate use.
Zizek, despite his avowed opposition to Agamben’s messianic Marxism, nonetheless remains remarkably close to Agamben here, no doubt due to their common debt to Benjamin. Throughout In Defense of Lost Causes, he praises the Jacobin experimentation with the constitutive customs and practices of banal everyday life, Lenin’s resolute determination to ‘fail better’ than bourgeois society, Stalin’s attempt to forcibly restructure the countryside into collective farms, in which an entire new form of society had to be invented, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Moreover, the entire book defends a concept of Revolutionary Terror (as opposed to terrorism) that, like Benjamin’s divine violence, functions only to prevent the imposition of a new legitimate law and tradition.
Given, then, capitalism as a global suspension of law or a ‘state of exception that has become the rule’, the practical question is twofold: 1) how to appropriate the means of production, or how to liberate territories from capitalist control (and territory should be read here in the broad, ontological sense given to it by Deleuze and Guattari); and 2) how to develop a practice of misuse or improper use, wherein the only necessity is the sustained exorcism of every attempted imposition of necessity, or maintenance of an ethic of experimental use or ‘study’ (in the scientific sense). If capital ‘experiments’, it nonetheless subordinates these experiments to the imposed necessity of the market qua collective decision engine of acephalous capital, or anonymous pool of investment.
The question is how to base society fundamentally upon experimental use and suspended normativity. The lesson we are supposed to have learned from the failure of really existing socialism (not to mention really existing Christianity) is that large scale top-down organizations do not work, they are fundamentally unattuned to such experimentalism, and hence we must restrict ourselves to the unorganized multitude, and so on. These are ultimately post-modern conclusions. Yet we need not draw them, if we change the problem from whether and what mass organization is ideal, to how we organize even the most basic units of society: ‘private’ individuals, their property, their relations.
Communism as experimental praxis does not exclude mass organization, or even direct intervention in and appropriation of the state apparatus. It is incapable of prescribing such a form of organization. Rather, it must begin by developing social units constituted on a strictly improper basis, the basis of an experimental use of everything: from one’s self, to one’s possessions, to one’s relations with others. In this sense, nothing can be exclusively mine, it cannot be my property. Yet I can use it however I want, so long as it does not enforce a prescription or proscription upon anyone. In such a model, any means of production can be appropriated, even the state, but everything thereby appropriated becomes ‘disowned’ and collectively misused. Capital qua undead labor is no longer forced to reproduce itself by risking itself, and instead is returned to the dead: because the ‘rightful owners of everything that has been made’ are long dead and forgotten (even those who are still alive are, qua abstract labor, dead to what they have made), everything constituted must remain in permanent expropriation out of respect for the dead. This would be their redemption.
The Iranian Spectacle and its Frame
Finally, to return to the revolt following the Iranian presidential election of 2009, we can ask: what role could the (Marxist) intellectual have in such an event, if not as the leader of a vanguard party that would seize control of the state? The 20th century was, for almost its entire duration, the site of a massive deficit, relative to today, with regard to means of information exchange, dissemination of ideas, and ultimately organization. Hence, massive top-down structures like the Party and the State were the only forces capable of genuinely undermining existing relations of production. Yet after the rise of the internet, lateral, non-local communication between individuals is easy and cheap, and intellectual property only exists insofar as it can be enforced, which is increasingly difficult. This is not, in itself, any kind of virtue or sign of a revolution. But this massive infrastructural shift does open a whole new set of possibilities for militant organization that were never open before.
This is very clearly demonstrated by the roles blogging, microblogging and liveblogging have played on the ground in Iran, as well as in the recent revolts in Guatamala, amongst other places. Now again, this is not in and of itself a good thing, and it is more than likely that the Iranian revolts will not end with any really revolutionary consequences – certainly not Marxist ones. This is especially the case, in that proprietary software and hardware, as well as state or corporate funded and maintained infrastructure, are what make this possible. This became powerfully clear when the Iranian state began limiting internet access to the revolting masses. So the first, obvious lesson should be that this infrastructure, these means of production, have to be appropriated by revolutionary organizations.
Yet this is still begging the question of how to organize groups capable of maintaining the ex-appropriation of ‘liberated capital’. The simplest lesson we can derive from hyper-mediated affairs like the Iranian and Guatamalan revolts is that the public discourse concerning these events is no longer exclusively restricted by corporate capital. Corporate capital obviously still has a huge ‘market share’, but it is one that is rapidly eroding, and being replaced by a radically equalized playing-field. It’s ironic that, while representatives of corporate employed journalists are bemoaning their displacement by new media, complaining that no one is going to report on international events because no one will pay to send reporters overseas, the Iranian case demonstrates that there is in fact no need send anyone: the people on the ground can report it themselves.
Moreover, these new media are mutating and evolving constantly: from listservs and messageboards, to instant messaging and email, to blogging and wikis, and now liveblogging and massive social networks; and with the advent of new hybrid technologies like Google Wave, who can really say what communication itself, much less journalism, will look like in twenty years? While there is no virtue to these technologies in themselves, they do create a radically lateral environment of communication, with ever increasing degrees of egalitarian permeability.
When corporate controlled media had a monopoly on nearly all non-local-direct communication, it was very easy to control what people did by restricting the coordinates of what they consider possible. Such coordinates are structured around what Levi, following Niklas Luhmann, calls ‘topics‘, or what George Lakoff calls ‘metaphors’ or ‘models’. The positions of every social agent are determined relative to these topics, for or against them, and they are thereby constrained to the actions their positions allow. What the advent of new media amounts to is an equalization of the ‘topics’ market, toppling the corporate monopoly on what topics are legitimately discussed, be it in print journalism, radio or television journalism, books, academic and scientific research, et cetera.
The radical permeability of new media means that new topics can proliferate out of the control of corporate media, and indeed we see this beginning to happen with Iran. Yet the mere fact of these technologies and their permeability does not guarantee the proliferation and mutation of topics, and even if it did, it does not guarantee that topics like ‘torture’, or worse, won’t be legitimated. The intense proliferation of new topics and evaluations must be supplemented with those of property, propriety, and legitimacy themselves being rigorously raised anew, so that the opposition they render in public opinion will clearly manifest class struggle. As Marx always said, the goal of the communist party is to organize the proletariat, as classless class or non-class, into a class, to explicitly constitute the revolutionary class as such. Such organization is possible starting at a molecular level, if we take advantage of the radical permeability of new media.
Yet wouldn’t this amount to us Western intellectuals simply ‘colonializing’ the struggle of others? No, for two reasons: 1) contamination is already global, there are no pure cultures that we can ‘contaminate’, as everyone is now radically exposed – global contamination is secured by capital’s global integration; 2) moreover, the egalitarian nature of disseminated information on the internet means that people will decide for themselves what ideas are relevant and irrelavant, they will decide what works and what does not.
The viral capacity for information to spread in this new media is thus the first condition of a new organizational method. While we can’t look to information technology as itself the savior (some kind of digital communism), we can nonetheless (improperly) use its radical permeability and constant upheaval. The Iranian revolt may be a hyper-mediated spectacle, but we should nonetheless intervene in the spectacle itself, topically asserting class struggle, and the possibility of improper use, as capable of displacing and even undermining the topical coordinates that secure capital’s indefinite reproduction of itself.