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.

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