The Non-Event

In my last post I argued that the recent protests in Brazil should not be dismissed as mere spectacle, as reducible to a spontaneous affective disorder of transitory anger or festivity. They are not Carnavalesque. Rather, no matter how long they last, they have already succeeded in politicizing space, creating new places of political activity in Brazil. I would further argue that the kind of political arena that has been created is relatively new. It is a physical manifestation of network power — the hybrid formation of affective social networks between subjects and their networking machines. This yields non-subjectivity: a political object (with demands!) that fills the street and cannot be pushed around.

Today we have news that this political objectives has achieved some measure of success in having its demands redressed.  As reported in the Washington Post:

President Dilma Rousseff proposed a wide range of actions to reform Brazil’s political system, fight corruption and improve public services — all demands angrily asked for by the millions of protesters who’ve taken to the streets the past week.

In a meeting Monday with four leaders of a main group behind the protest movement and later with governors and the mayors of 26 capital cities, Rousseff shifted some of the burden for progress onto the back of Brazil’s widely loathed congress — in particular, in calling for a plebiscite on political reform that only lawmakers have the authority to call.

Rousseff told the governors and mayors that the government would allocate $23 billion for new spending on urban public transport, but she didn’t provide details on what the new projects would be. The four leaders of the free-transit activist group that launched the first demonstrations more than a week ago said she also gave them no concrete plans.

This news comes on the heel of a spate of articles, mainly in the corporate US press, warning readers not to take the protests seriously at all. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady opines that if Dilma succumbs to the temptation to negotiate with the protesters, that Brazil will surely “sink back into the 1970s” rather than continue its “decades-long evolution toward democratic capitalism.” The protests are not truly popular according to O’Grady, but are the work of “hard-line leftists.” Never mind that 2 million citizens have participated directly, indicating that other Brazilians many times over also support them but have not joined. By way of comparison, has any Tea Party rally drawn that many people? And yet the Tea Party continues to be seen by the likes of the WSJ as a “successful” popular uprising. O’Grady’s “analysis,” such as it is, makes absolutely no sense. The military governments of the 1970s were the pro-capitalist advocates of “evolution” or progress toward “democratic capitalism” — an oxymoronic dream of the military rulers that they were “preparing the nation for democracy.” O’Grady frets that Dilma’s government is fettering the hands of global capital markets which — it goes without saying, of course! — should always remain unfettered. She then paraphrases Margaret Thatcher (!!) that “those who stand in the middle of the road get run over.” Well, at least she’s honest in stating that global capitalism’s goal is to murder anyone who stands in its way.

O’Grady’s op-ed is only slightly more intelligent than the article Christopher Dickey ran in the Daily Beast. Dickey begins by quoting French “historian,” Dominique Venner — an avowed Fascist, mind you, who recently protested France’s adoption of gay marriage by blowing his head off with a pistol at the altar of Notre Dame cathedral.

“The effervescence,” Venner wrote, “is not the revolution.”

By this Dickey attempts to reduce the manifestações to mere fizz:

You see that in Brazil right now, where a million people turned out to protest Thursday. There was violence, sure, and one person died, but there was samba, too, and the kind of adrenaline rush that comes from massive collective excitement. A lot of people find the effervescence fun in its early stages. But as Chairman Mao famously said, a revolution is not a dinner party. Effervescence doesn’t become a revolution until it’s organized and led by a party or a person, and then things start to get really serious and can get really ugly.

Movements like what has gone on in Brazil, or the Indignados in Spain, or Occupy in New York, or Gezi Park in Istanbul, none of these have any political “force” (his term), because they have not succeeded in translating themselves either into political parties within the established system or full-blown revolutionary insurrections. So evidently the only options a movement have are: 1) To be bought out by corporate interests, just as happened to the Tea Party (the only “success” Dickey cites); or 2) Start a war and wait for the drones to start firing missiles at your head.

Writers like O’Grady and Dickey fundamentally fail to understand the nature of network power exercised by these new political objects. However, it is also important to note that thinkers on the far-left have also misunderstood the situation. Several days ago, Alain Badiou published an open letter to the protesters in Turkey. In his typically Messianic fashion, Badiou feels that the Gezi protest signal “the rebirth of History.” That is to say:

The whole prob­lem is whether this cour­ageous upris­ing is cap­able of open­ing the way for a genu­ine his­tor­ical riot. A riot is his­tor­ical — as was the case only in Tunisia and Egypt, where the out­come of the struggle has still not been determ­ined — when it brings together, under shared slo­gans, not just one but sev­eral poten­tial act­ors of a new revolu­tion­ary polit­ics: for example, in addi­tion to the edu­cated youth and middle class, large sec­tors of working-​class youth, work­ers, women of the people, low-​level employ­ees, and so on. This move bey­ond the imme­di­ate riot toward a mass protest move­ment cre­ates the pos­sib­il­ity for a new type of organ­ized polit­ics, a polit­ics that is dur­able, that merges the force of the people with the shar­ing of polit­ical ideas, and that thereby becomes cap­able of chan­ging the over­all situ­ation of the coun­try in question.

The protests, in other words, hold forth the promise of becoming a miraculous Event, through which people of all classes will be united as One so that History will be redeemed from itself. What Badiou desires is that the “immediate riot,” which does not yet make historical sense, translate itself into some political form that does make sense. And one must suspect that Badiou seeks a new Chairman Jesus Mao (there, I said it!) who would be capable of retroactively translating the Event into the One Historical Future. This argument is not that far from that of Dickey, who also quotes Mao in his article, that a political movement is not effective until it forms itself as an institution with an institutional leadership. This argument misses the point entirely.

As I wrote several years ago in my article, “Unicity,” the world order in-formation is one of information: that is, it is composed of various densities of informational network traffic. Information is not a “thing,” as in a static object, but rather it is movement. Certain densities or “knots” of network traffic, which I dubbed exones, are instantly translatable from anywhere and to anywhere on the network — they “make sense” across the web. Other network knots, which I called intrones, are no less informationally rich, but are untranslatable and don’t “make sense.” The exone and the introne are not to be understood as stable places. They are not zones that one either lives in or does not live in. They are somewhere between an inhabited space and a state of being. One may be simultaneously exonic and intronic in various proportions. However, at times the introne will co-opt the translatability of the exone in order to disrupt it some fashion.

The manifestações, as well as Occupy, Indignados, Gezi, #YoSoy132, are all manifestations of the introne. They are massive knots of untranslatable information that have decided block specific flows of information translating across the exone — capital flows, political facilitation of capital flows, international soccer, what have you. The fact that they do not make sense to professional journalists or professional philosophers is perfectly reasonable — they will never fit into the pre-formed categories or institutions of the exone. This “decision” of the introne is not sovereign, because it is not the decision of a sovereign subject, it is not subjective. It is that of a non-subject — the political object. And here it is important to recall that “translation” not only means the conveyance of meaning from one code to another, but also the moving of an object from one location to another. The political object of the introne is one that cannot be moved from its site. It cannot be pushed around by the political or economic powers that be without a massive application of force. It is untranslatable!

As a density of untranslatable information, however, the political object is not quite objective. In other words, since all information is flow — even noise is flow — an informational object is never permanently stable as an object. Moreover, I would tend to the think of the “political object” as a transitory formation of a non-subject (a political entity neither subject nor object). The political object in this sense is a true “uprising” in the following sense: it can rise up as a blockage (no meio do caminho há uma pedra), dissipate, and rise up again later, making political gains as it ebbs and flows.

To the likes of Mary Anastasia O’Grady, then, I say: Those who stand in the middle of the road occasionally get run over; but more often than not a car will be totalled if it smashes head-on into giant boulder, há uma pedra! And to the likes of Alain Badiou, I say: Abandon all hope for the Event! The entrance of network power as a political object does not herald the future. It is thoroughly present as data processing, informational flow. In short, a Non-Event that is here. And here. And here. And here. And

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A Change of Place / Network Power

I’ve been watching the utterly gripping scenes of the protests in Brazil over the past two weeks. This after watching the utterly gripping scenes of the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. There’s something happening here!

I’ll leave it for other voices to explain the details of what is going on in Brazil. I’ve found this interview with a movement organizer in Jacobin Magazine to be very useful. My friends Maite Conde and Tariq Jazeel, who happen to be in Brazil these days, provided this excellent primer on the situation for Social Text. In this post, I want to take up several theoretical considerations as to why the protests have emerged as they have, and what their potential outcomes may be.

Maite and Riq attribute the mushrooming size of the protests to general popular dissatisfaction with globalization, the benefits of which (of course!) will probably never reach the vast majority of people:

“The ‘Brazil as an emerging economy’ narrative is not incidental here either. What is being expressed is the multitude’s sense – and to be clear, a multitude has certainly assembled – that it is not benefiting economically and developmentally while the nation-state’s international profile skyrockets and the elite and the upper middle class’s pockets get fuller and fatter. Emerging economy for whom? The manifestações have spiraled to articulate mass grievance about a range of issues that revolve around the state’s neglect of the people and their basic needs, as well as socioeconomic and political inequalities.”

I do not deny this analysis at all — it captures the sentiment perfectly. But I am left to question, why now? Brazilian history, after all, has never been particularly kind to the multitude, especially in times when the national economy has been “emerging” or in “ascendance.”

The most recent case-in-point would be the 1970s. Under military rule, Brazilian economic expansion was rather spectacular from 1968-1973, one of the fastest rising economies on the planet. The OPEC oil shock of 1973 definitely slowed growth, but unlike the stagflation of the US, the Brazilian economy continued to rumble along, in large part because military/political leaders infused it amply with the petro-dollar debt made available through the other end of OPEC shock. (I.e., the steep rise of oil prices created huge reserves of cash in OPEC nations which multinational banks were only happy to shit out… er, reinvest in the form of loans to Latin America, creating the bubble economy in debt that would explode in 1982.) And yet, the government of the 1970s was negligent — willfully and disdainfully negligent — of the rapid expansion of poverty that fueled the growth of essentially anarchic favelas. It is no mistake that the Comando Vermelho took control of Rio’s drug trade, and hence became the only true sovereign power in the favelas, at that time. And it is only now that the government seeks to root out the CV through direct military engagement, urban occupation that may or may not be permanent after 2016.

So why no massive protests in the 1970s? There are a good deal of parallels between now and then. Whereas Brazil is now one of the imputed stars of the global economy, back then Brazil was a leading emerging star of what was call the “international” economy of multinational capital. Whereas now the massive profits of globalization are concentrated in the upper echelon of Brazilian society (despite the relatively miniscule redistribution efforts of the Partido dos Trabalhadores), back then a good deal of Brazil’s middle and working classes slipped backwards into poverty. Obviously there are any number of historical differences one could point to between 1973 and 2013, but of the socio-economic pressures placed on the back of the lower classes (perversely brought about by economic expansion) are definitely similar.

One obvious difference between then and now is psychological: FEAR. The barriers to participation in any sort of dissident political manifestation are much higher when you know the spot down the block where the police are arbitrarily arresting and torturing your neighbors. The barriers are even higher when you don’t know where the police are taking them, even though you do believe for a fact that they are being abused. More than psychological, however, these barriers should be considered to be physical and spatial. The presence of fear in private space translates into the circumscription of certain kinds of (political) action in public space.

The circumscription of physical action is, more over, a function of the information made available in any given predicament, limiting or opening political options at key junctures in time and space. Fear in the case of military repression results from having just enough information of one’s environment on one hand, but not enough information on the other. Just enough awareness to speculate reasonably that fellow citizens are being tortured, but no awareness of when or where or how or why that torture occurs behind the walls of the barracks, out of view. What I wish to underscore hear is how flows of information (the constriction or opening thereof) intersect with space and place in ways that are directly relevant to political action.

The counter-example to what I have just described has occurred over the past several weeks. Now that the direct memories of the 1970s and 80s have faded from view, I would argue that the manifestações grew to such massive proportions — about 1 in every 200 Brazilians joined in, according to best estimates — precisely to the extent that there was no real fear of a military coup d’etat and mass arrests. More importantly, I would argue, the barriers to participation were greatly lowered due to social networking. After one sees how many Facebook friends have joined the march, joining in oneself becomes a far less difficult choice. Much has been made of low-level political participation via social networks — it is easier to click “Like” on the fanpage of Anarcho-Syndicalist Revolution Now! than to actually fight in the Anarcho-Syndicalist Revolution now. And it is therefore generally assumed that such “virtual” participation does not lead to “concrete” action in the street. After all, one can murder any number of passers-by virtually in a video game, yet it is entirely dubious that this leads to increased murders of actual passers-by on the street.  Yet under the right circumstance, it seems that a translation from “virtual” to “concrete” network power is precisely what has happened across Brazil.

Network power is created when flows of particular kinds of information become strong enough to carry along an affective identification with that information. Rather than merely surfing through webpages, networked users need to imagine themselves actually riding the waves of information they receive and send along the network. Information is not merely that which appears on the screen, but rather, those using the screen feel that they are integral to the production and reproduction of this information. In the case of today’s Brazil, fear (lack of information such that affective networks are made impossible) has been superseded by hope (affective investment in information shared across a network).

Under such definitions, hope and fear should be understood as operationalized information, rather than mere affective states. This may sound confusing, given that the operationalization of network power involves an affective identification with information. What I am conjecturing is that network power, once objectified, cannot be reduced to affect exclusively, even if affect is constitutive of it. A shift in understanding of this sort is necessary in order to analyze what has occurred in Brazil with any precision. The protests represent the concrete translation of informational-network power into the street. They transform the street into a politicized object, and this objectification is ultimately more significant and powerful than the exercise of any individual subjective political will. In concrete reality, the protesters form a mass that is incredibly difficult for authorities to move or channel. Once this mass is formed, it is no longer necessary for anyone even to move! Just look at the “silent” and “motionless” protests in Istanbul over the past few weeks. They are there, and there very being-there makes it difficult for police (or political regimes) to move them. In virtual reality, the protesters form a mass that can be photographed as a massive political object. I would hazard to guess that many if not most of the protesters were acting with full knowledge of that startling images of the protests that were being disseminated across the nation and across the planet. And this (correct!) envisioning of the objects-as-image only increased the power of the protest. Even those these images lack a certain amount of materiality, they have already altered the relation between the government and its people, and altered the perception of Brazil, and its place within globalized capitalism, from within and without.

Will these protests last, and will they thoroughly up-end the Brazilian government? My answer is a qualified “No.” Such events in Brazil seem to capture the national imagination for several days or weeks, such that they appear to be the most significant events in history, only to die down and be forgotten in short order. However, the real power of these demonstrations is not to be ignored. They are manifestations of objectified network power, and as such they cannot be dismissed as mere eruptions of subjective or affective hysteria. Here, a comparison with that most Brazilian of occurrences, Carnaval, is warranted. During Carnaval, the street becomes a place in which it feels as if (affective) the “normal” restrictions on intoxication, sex, dress and/or any sort of “illegitimate” behavior have been lifted. Of course, such affective suspension of the law amounts to panis et circenses thrown at the masses to distract them from their own subjugation/subjectification to power. I am not diminishing how fun it is to participate, nor how beautiful the celebrations may be. I am only saying that the supposed “suspension” of the law during Carnaval is transitory at best, reactionary at worst, and in no way represents any sort of revolutionary threat to the established order of things. Mandei plantar folhas de sonho no jardim do solar, as folhas sabem procurar pelo sol e as raízes procurar, procurar, mas as pessoas da sala de jantar são ocupadas em nascer e morrer.

By contrast the recent protests are not Carnavalesque. They may not result in any direct political outcomes, no formal presentation of political demands, no formation of political parties recognized by the state. This is because as political objects they will not, and perhaps cannot, articulate themselves within an official political order subtended on the notion of subjective will. The occupation of a street, or a square, or a park by an object of network power is in fact real politics on a concrete level. The Avenida Paulista has been occupied politically, and it will remain occupied as a political object, at least virtually, for a long time to come. Ocupada em nascer e morrer.