We Do Need Governance, But Can Do Without Sovereignty

I just finished reading my friend Bernie Wills' book Believing Weird Things. I’m writing a review of it at Social Epistemology, but today’s monologue will work through some of my initial reactions to what he had to say. As well, I’m going to see what can come out of playing Bernie’s ideas off some arguments from Antonio Negri’s latest book Assembly, available in intelligent bookshops and online stores near you.

So the last two essays of the fourteen in Believing Weird Things were published on the open-access side of Social Epistemology early this year. They confront different aspects of the resurgence of nationalist politics in Europe and the Americas. 

I’ll expand a little more on this in my official review, of course. But the last essay, “Conservatism: The End of An Idea” made me think of a curious idea. It wasn’t something he said, but something he never said.

The essay identified and explored the nihilism driving all the most radically destructive forms of extremism. 

Since the show is called Radical Democrats Radio, I thought I’d at least consider the implications for the brand. 

If I can distill the argument to a single sentence – Bernie saw the nihilism of nationalist right and anarchist left ultimately leading to the same ends. The radical nationalist replaces rule of law with fascist kleptocracy. The radical anarchist replaces rule of law with social chaos.

Here’s my problem with this idea. I think it departs from the material situation we’re in, veering a little too conceptual. 

In the actual political situation of Europe and the Americas in 2018, our popular political conflicts are realigning into a new order. 

The general right wing blends two ideologies: 1) economic libertarianism that enables cronyism and kleptocracy, 2) xenophobic nationalism. The particular flavour of xenophobia in a country, is usually cobbled together from what’s available. 

For example, xenophobes in the United States are deepest dedicated to being anti-Hispanic and anti-Black, and Islamophobia is a bold new vector of aggressive racist paranoia. They’ve resurrected their fear-mongering anti-communist messaging to describe anything in favour of a welfare state, environmentalism, or social liberalism in general. The most extreme xenophobes are more marginalized Nazis.

I say more marginalized because you can’t say k-i-k-e on FOX. At least not yet. So I’m speaking relatively.

Bernie’s right about that designation. So what about the left? 

Well, I’ve hung out in some pleasant anarchist communes. But they aren’t exactly networked into the new progressive mainstream. Because the conservative mainstream includes open dedicated racists like US Representative Steve King, FOX News’ Tucker Carlson, Presidential Advisor Stephen Miller, and President Donald Trump.

Today’s new alignment in the progressive left is toward a new social democracy that includes ecological priorities in its economics, and a cosmopolitan ethnic, religious, sex, and gender freedom in its cultural liberalism. 

An essay that seeks to diagnose our times leans too heavily on a concept instead of the real. That’s my main problem with that last essay in the collection. 

Yet. I have to say yet. There is a very subtle kind of opposition to the state that the 21st century social democrats of the West share with the most nitrous-addled anarchist shack-dweller. It’s the opposition to sovereignty.

Sovereignty is a conceptual framework of what governments are for. But a government can be organized according to a lot of different conceptual frameworks. Sovereignty is an ideology that unites two principles – 1) Borders become sanctified; 2) A state’s borders create a united social entity, the nation.

This is what Negri diagnoses. Sovereignty ideology defines the purpose of the state as maintaining the population in order. So the primary institutions of the state are the police and military.

The new social democratic vision defines the purpose of the state real economic and personal freedom. Everyone has the capacity and opportunities to make a decent living and avoid indebtedness. Everyone has the right to live however and wherever they want. 

What are the institutions of a state with those priorities? It’s not keeping order. It’s about preserving the lives and dignity of the population. Those institutions would be public health infrastructure, social security, schools and universities. 

This wouldn’t be a sovereign state that prioritizes social order. It would be a people’s state that prioritizes social dignity. 

Political Strategy Without Leaders, 04/12/2018

When Occupy first blew up, the most tiresome, empty-headed critique was that one question, over and over. “Who are their leaders? What is their concrete agenda?”

Exactly the wrong question, I realized after maybe a week of thinking on it myself. I never participated in an Occupy movement as a member. I was a visitor, happy to see that we still had space for rebellion. And I knew from my experience that the space itself was the point.

It was a movement to bring people together, exchange ideas and philosophies, and make a space where rebellion was possible. The point was to assert the possibility of rebellion in the West.

Never forget what I mean when I talk about the West: the lands and cultures of globalizing colonial empire, that started in the 1500s. It’s an entire set of cultures and institutions that have been shaped by the desire to justify worldwide conquest.

Can you transform a culture so radically in a single generation, a single place, a single organization led by one person? We make statues of individual people – Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Ho Chi Minh. We celebrate what they achieved, and how they inspired people. We call them leaders.

They changed laws and governments. But it takes more than the organization of just one social movement to transform the moralities of a population of millions. The 1964 Civil Rights Act did not end racism in America.

Imagine the force you'd need to transform a culture that had been developing for hundreds of years, to have a totally different character. Turning a concept of virtue as conquest and superiority all over the West into mutual inclusion and equality. That task is way beyond the work of one generation, let alone one person. One leader.

That was the ontological point of Antonio Negri’s concept of assembly, which he writes about with Michael Hardt in the book called Assembly. An assembly is a social force that can grow in power and longevity enough to transform the morality of an entire culture.

Even when the institutions of that culture – police, security forces, spy agencies, churches, governments, laws, schools – turn against such a social force, that force has the potential to overthrow and revolutionize those institutions.

Does it always, every time? Oh hell no! Individual political movements are crushed, but the force itself can survive as a story, an idea, a few books that still sell really well. The single biggest corporation in the world sees no need to censor Marx from the online store. They sell everything just shy of the Turner Diaries too.

So ideas continue in all directions, in favour of a lot of different moralities. Moralities of conquest and freedom are always in conflict. An assembly, in its loosest form, is a morality – the concepts that channel our desires into action, action that crafts our desires.

One of Negri and Hardt’s tasks in Assembly was working out how to channel that resilient social power of the mass movement in thought and action. Leaders, it’s said, are needed to formulate strategy. Generals overlooking the map. And the ordinary people of their organizations are the soldiers. Leadership meant plotting from a position detached from the action.

That’s a dualist way of thinking about the nature of political and social movements. It separates action from thought.

Assembly merges them. So when you think about social movements as self-directed, leaders aren’t your generals. They become figureheads, spokespeople who follow the moral directions that are developed among the ordinary people.

Regular activists develop strategies for outreach and conversation (and moral conversion) specific to the needs of their own territories. Who knows a place better than the people who live there?

Certainly not some egomaniac game show host. Certainly not some over-insulated multi-millionaire career political party leader.

I’m talking in that last example about Hillary Clinton. I now have one more Festivus grievance against her as a politician, and that’s her new advocacy for caving to the white nationalist movement on immigration in the hopes that they’ll leave the rest of us alone.

Clinton’s 21st century update of appeasement ran in the Guardian last week. It’s appeasement by focus group. Having identified what message encourages the most enthusiasm from the supporters of nationalist parties, she says that we can win their votes by also becoming nationalist parties.

It’s an absurd, ridiculous, and frankly stupid idea. Do you really think that someone who hates Hillary Clinton as much as a dedicated anti-immigration Republican would vote for her? Even if she personally suffocated a four-year-old Honduran girl with tear gas, he’d call it a false flag. Just like the Sandy Hook massacre and the moon landing.

Even beyond this, the real problem with Clinton’s approach in that Guardian article is that she thinks that her DC focus groups can tell people what to think so that they will vote for who they want to. The ones who pay for the focus groups.

That’s not how you lead a democratic movement. Here’s how.

You don’t. The movement is the leader – ordinary people percolating ideas through society that change our culture’s entire morality, one social network node at a time.