Life in Limbo?
We are trapped in a state of limbo, neither one thing nor the other. For more than two years, the world has been wracked by a series of interrelated crises, and they show no sign of being resolved anytime soon. The unshakable certainties of neoliberalism, which held us fast for so long, have collapsed. Yet we seem unable to move on. Anger and protest have erupted around different aspects of the crises, but no common or consistent reaction has seemed able to cohere. A general sense of frustration marks the attempts to break free from the morass of a failing world.
There is a crisis of belief in the future, leaving us with the prospect of an endless, deteriorating present that hangs around by sheer inertia. In spite of all this turmoil – this time of ‘crisis’ when it seems like everything could, and should, have changed – it paradoxically feels as though history has stopped. There is an unwillingness, or inability, to face up to the scale of the crisis. Individuals, companies and governments have hunkered down, hoping to ride out the storm until the old world re-emerges in a couple of years. Attempts to wish the ‘green shoots’ of recovery into existence mistake an epochal crisis for a cyclical one; they are little more than wide-eyed boosterism. Yes, astronomical sums of money have prevented the complete collapse of the financial system, but the bailouts have been used to prevent change, not initiate it. We are trapped in a state of limbo.
Crisis in the middle
And yet, something did happen. Recall those frightening yet heady days that began in late 2008, when everything happened so quickly, when the old dogmas fell like autumn leaves? They were real. Something happened there: the tried and tested ways of doings things, well-rehearsed after nearly 30 years of global neoliberalism, started to come unstuck. What had been taken as read no longer made sense. There was a shift in what we call the middle ground: the discourses and practices that define the centre of the political field.
To be sure, the middle ground is not all that there is, but it is what assigns the things in the world around it a greater or lesser degree of relevance, validity or marginality. It constitutes a relatively stable centre against which all else is measured. The farther from the centre an idea, project or practice is, the more likely it is to be ignored, publicly dismissed or disqualified, or in some way suppressed. The closer to it, the more it stands a chance of being incorporated – which in turn will shift the middle more or less. Neither are middle grounds defined ‘from above’, as in some conspiratorial nightmare. They emerge out of different ways of doing and being, thinking and speaking, becoming intertwined in such a way as to reinforce each other individually and as a whole. The more they have become unified ‘from below’ as a middle ground, the more this middle ground acquires the power of unifying ‘from above’. In this sense, the grounds of something like ‘neoliberalism’ were set before something was named as such; but the moment when it was named is a qualitative leap: the point at which relatively disconnected policies, theories and practices became identifiable as forming a whole.
The naming of things like Thatcherism in the UK, or Reganism in the US, marked such a moment for something that had been constituting itself for some time before, and which has for the past three decades dominated the middle ground: neoliberalism, itself a response to the crisis of the previous middle, Fordism/Keynesianism. The era of the New Deal and its various international equivalents had seen the rise of a powerful working class that had grown used to the idea that its basic needs should be met by the welfare state, that real wages would rise, and that it was always entitled to more. Initially, the centrepiece of the neoliberal project was an attack on this ‘demanding’ working class and the state institutions wherein the old class compromise had been enshrined. Welfare provisions were rolled back, wages held steady or forced downwards, and precariousness increasingly became the general condition of work.
But this attack came at a price. The New Deal had integrated powerful workers’ movements – mass-based trade unions – into the middle ground, helping to stabilise a long period of capitalist growth. And it provided sufficiently high wages to ensure that all the stuff generated by a suddenly vastly more productive industrial system – based on Henry Ford’s assembly line and Frederick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ – could be bought. Bit by bit, the ferocious attack on the working classes of the global North was offset by low interest rates (i.e. cheap credit) and access to cheap commodities, mass-produced in areas where wages were at their lowest (like China). In the global South, the prospect of one day attaining similar living conditions was promised as a possibility. In this sense, neoliberal globalisation was the globalisation of the American dream: get rich or die trying.
Clearly, neoliberalism also relied on a ‘deal’ of some kind. But the word here has a different meaning; its mode of attraction/incorporation was quite unlike that of Fordism/Keynesianism. The latter involved visible, constituted collective forces through the likes of trade unions or farmers’ organisations; the former worked more as a buyout from the original deal, addressing individuals directly as individuals. It was a middle ground that emerged out of ‘deviant’ desires, discourses and practices that looked for ways out of the existing one (the fear that unions had become too powerful, dissatisfaction with the drab uniformity of everything, para-statal practices of corruption that compensated an over-regulated life), and as such were very much about individualisation. Indeed, it aimed to create a certain kind of individual, an atomised self-entrepreneur whose collective social ties are subordinated to the search for private gain.
Crisis of the common
Today, the neoliberal deal is null and void; the middle ground has crumbled away. We’ve gone past the era when cheap credit, rising asset prices and falling commodity prices could compensate for stagnant wages. Those days are over but no new middle ground has cohered. Nobody has ‘agreed’ any replacement ‘deal’. That’s why we find ourselves in a state of limbo.
Mind you, deals and middle ground don’t necessarily go hand in hand. A new middle ground might result from a deal, explicit (like that of the New Deal of the 1930s) or implicit (like neoliberalism) – indeed, it will be firmer, more stable, if this is the case. But a new centre of the political field can also emerge without one. A middle ground does not require the degree of consent implied by a deal; it’s a sufficient but not a necessary condition. It does, however, always involve a process of attraction and incorporation of forces that could threaten it – the extent of which is defined by the terms of each emerging middle ground itself.
Striking a deal is like agreeing – consciously or otherwise – to a (temporary) truce following a fierce battle. But a middle ground could establish itself in the midst of a period of ongoing conflict and contestation – a more protracted struggle of attrition. From our current vantage point, much is unknown. We certainly can’t predict the duration or outcome of the struggle over what becomes the new political ‘common sense’. Moreover, the sides aren’t even clear. Finding out who your allies are only really happens once a fight has been picked. So who will be fighting whom and about what? What will be the common ground among movements in the new struggles and those further down the line?
Our concept of ‘common ground’ is, like middle grounds, a theoretical tool. We use it to name the intersections and resonances of diverse struggles, practices, discourses, targets and referents. In the previous alter-globalisation movement, the common ground was the shared ‘One No’ – against the monopolising logic of neoliberalism – along with the acceptance that there were ‘Many Yeses’ – the multiplicity of alternative notions of economy, commons and sociality. For many years, many movements could meet and recognise one another as kindred on this common ground of rejection of neoliberalism – without denying their difference. But the shattering of the middle ground means a common ground rooted in antagonism to it now lies in ruins.
From madness to mainstream?
Until recently, anyone who suggested nationalising the banks would have been derided as a quack and a crank, as lacking the most basic understanding of economics and the functioning of a ‘complex, globalised world’. So strong was the grip of ‘orthodoxy’ that such an idea would have been disqualified without the need to offer a counter-argument. Yet over the past year, governments around the world have effectively nationalised large parts of the financial sector, while handing over dizzyingly large amounts of public money to those institutions that remained in private hands. Similar moves into the mainstream have taken place with the discourses around climate change and commons. Every ‘serious’ politician must at least appear to be concerned about global warming. And the ‘commons’, long an exclusive focus of the left, has also entered the vocabulary of centrist intellectuals and politicians: from widening recognition of the ‘public benefits’ of access to cheap drugs and other intellectual property, to cautiously approving comments in The Economist, and the economics professions’ faux Nobel prize going to Elinor Ostrom for her work on commons. Put these together and some might argue that the centre of gravity of public discourse has shifted to the left.
Yet it cannot escape notice that the recent nationalisations were argued for precisely on the grounds that they are necessary to save financialised capitalism, not as part of a social democratic programme of redistribution, let alone a strategy for a socialist transition. Likewise, the new green economy that is now on politicians’ public agendas aims to maintain a big-business, productivist model of development by marrying it to more environmentally sustainable energies and processes.
So things have changed, but, trapped in limbo, the extent of change is by no means obvious. Let us be clear, then, about where things have started to happen. Perhaps the most obvious change is at the level of what can be said - what can be accepted as valid argument, rather than being consigned to a wilderness inhabited by raging ideologues, and the ignorant. In its heyday, neoliberal ideology was effective in banishing all other thought because it posed as non-ideological, as merely the ‘reasonable’ application of the ‘science’ of utility. Today, however, it is possible to see (and say) that the presuppositions of these reasonable decisions were, of course, ideological. The market does not tend toward equilibrium, the maximisation of self-interest can override instincts of self-preservation and lead to sub-optimal outcomes, and in times of crisis any trickle down is reverted into the upstream splurge of bailouts. The premises of those supposedly non-ideological arguments – such as the transformation of ‘the market’ into a natural given governed by scientific laws available to ortho-dox (‘correct opinion’) but not to hetero-dox (‘other opinion’) economists – have now been debunked. Hardcore neoliberal ideology will cease to shape the space of politics by defining its terms, what is good and bad (investment rather than public spending, efficient private versus inefficient public, markets not planning), and pulling the centre of gravity of the debate towards itself. Neoliberal orthodoxy no longer forms the middle ground of politics in regard to which all other opinions have to position themselves.
But does the disappearance of the ideological middle ground mean that the neoliberal era is actually over? Or is this just a pause, a kind of radical diet to shed inefficient capital and institutions, in order for neoliberalism to emerge leaner and meaner at the other end? On the one hand, rather than the banking system being restructured, and financial capital being subordinated to political direction, the recent bailout mania has simply been a massive robber-baron-style plunder of public resources, exacerbating 30 years of neoliberal upward redistribution of wealth. On the other, this major heist has lost its ideological justification, and been revealed as just that: theft. Neoliberalism has always had two sides. It was both a counterattack by elites against social gains won by workers’ and other movements from the 1930s onwards, an attempt to shift wealth back up the social ladder; and an ideological project claiming to rid ‘the markets’ of unwarranted intervention by governments and their ilk.
What remains of neoliberalism once the ideological padding comes off? It is no longer a (relatively) coherent politico-economic programme: it has become the plunder of a retreating army, a way of booby-trapping the political system before it has to relinquish control over it. But these booby traps, even if stripped of their ideological camouflage, are dangerous and deadly. In all the countries that have seen bailouts and/or financial crises, the enormous government deficits created are now being used by exactly those social forces that most benefited from them (in absolute terms) to argue that they should be paid off through yet more rounds of austerity and spending cuts. By handing over control to some ‘safe hands’ outside any form of accountability, neoliberalism gets locked in. A neat trick: the financial sector uses the debts incurred bailing it out to secure continued control over policy.
The picture is confusing, and gets even more so. As credit dries up and food and energy prices rise, workers are left underpaid and, in the North, over-indebted – a so-called recovery that doesn’t massively increase wages and/or cancel personal debt will not change that. Deal’s off, as it were. But if there is no more deal, and no more ideology, what of the social basis of neoliberalism – the neoliberal power bloc? In short, it is in disarray, if not totally shattered. There is no longer any social group that can credibly claim ‘leadership’ in society, politics, culture or the economy. ‘The centre cannot hold’, the middle ground is broken, leaving behind a confused and vicious army, institutions no longer guided by a coherent framework, political parties still vying for power but without any real programmes.
So if the power bloc is weak, engaged in obvious, large-scale looting of the system it used to run, and if – above all – the ideological core of neoliberalism is gone, why is a new middle ground failing to emerge? Why is the apparent discursive shift to the left not paying off in practical terms? The answer lies at least partly in the fact that the neoliberal project relied a lot less on ideology than its critics tended to think. Theories and ideologies are used to create neoliberal ideologues and activists, but persuasion through argument isn’t how it transforms our subjectivities and the limits of what we perceive possible. These changes are brought about more operationally than ideologically, that is, through interventions into the composition of society. Neoliberalism re-organises material processes in order to bring about the social reality that its ideology claims already exists. It attempts to create its own presuppositions.
Rather than being persuaded by the power of neoliberal arguments, people are trained to view themselves as rational benefit-maximisers, those elusive creatures of economic theory. This training takes place through a forced engagement with markets, not just in our economic activities, but in every sphere of our lives: in education, health care, child care, you name it. Take the school system in Britain. An army of government inspectors and statisticians compiles mountains of data on schools’ performance; parents, for their part, are expected to use this information to make the best decision regarding school choice. Education is seen as preparing bodies for the labour market, so ‘rational choice’ is invoked to justify the channelling of certain students into vocational training from an early age. Meanwhile, many ‘middle-class’ parents attempt to maximise their offspring’s chances of ‘getting the best start in life’ by engaging private tutors or dragging themselves to church every Sunday morning (Anglican faith schools having the best reputation).
Effectively, people are forced to become human capital, little enterprises locked in competition with others – an isolated atom entirely responsible for itself. In this context accepting the individual ‘deal’ offered by neoliberalism made sense. Neoliberalism isn’t – or wasn’t – just about changes in global governance or how states should be governed: it is about the management of individuals, about how you should live. It set up a model of life, and then established mechanisms that shepherded you towards ‘freely’ choosing that manner of living. The dice are loaded. Today, if you want to participate in society, you have to behave as homo economicus.
In many ways it is this neoliberal coding, not just of public institutions and policy programmes, but of our very selves, that keeps us trapped in limbo. Neoliberalism is dead but it doesn’t seem to realise it. Although the project no longer ‘makes sense’, its logic keeps stumbling on, like a zombie in a 1970s splatter movie: ugly, persistent and dangerous. If no new middle ground is able to cohere sufficiently to replace it, this situation could last a while… all the major crises - economic, climate, food, energy – will remain unresolved; stagnation and long-term drift will set in (recall that the crisis of Fordism took longer than an entire decade, the 1970s, to be resolved). Such is the ‘unlife’ of a zombie, a body stripped of its goals, unable to adjust itself to the future, unable to make plans. A zombie can only act habitually, continuing to operate even as it decomposes. Isn’t this where we find ourselves today, in the world of zombie-liberalism? The body of neoliberalism staggers on, but without direction or teleology.
Any project that wants to slay this zombie will have to operate on many different levels, just as neoliberalism did, which means that it must be tied to a new manner of living. And it must start from the here and now, the current composition of global society, large parts of which are still in the grip of the neoliberal zombie. This is the greatest challenge facing those advocating a New or Green New Deal. It isn’t a case of simply changing elite thinking or dabbling with government spending: it requires a more fundamental change. Not just a change of consciousness at the head of society, but a transformation of the social body.
The middle and the common
We can detect many symptoms of the waning of the old middle ground. In a way, this is where the significance of the Obama phenomenon lies: a political project that comes to power on a tide of vague promises of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ speaks less of the strength of its own ideas than of the weakness of others. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, we have seen the collapse of the parliamentary left in a number of recent elections. Whether in or out of power, Europe’s centre-left parties have been punished at the ballot box, while the vote for the right has generally held up better. Many have been mystified as to why the centre-left has taken the blame for the economic crisis, but the left that embraced neoliberalism became the truest of believers: it was they who came to see it as a progressive force that could bring development even to the world’s poor. (There is never a greater zealot than a convert.) It is the obliteration of this illusion that has led to the neoliberal left’s collapse.
So does that mean that the many left-wing critics of neoliberalism (and, sometimes, capitalism), from the radical left parties to the alter-globalists of Seattle and Genoa, can now simply bask in a self-satisfied glow? They can now claim to have been right all along in opposing not only the neoliberal triad of financialisation, deregulation and privatisation, but also the Blairite Third Way? We count ourselves amongst these critics, and we have certainly been right about some of these things – the instability of the neoliberal credit system, say. But one of the worst mistakes we could make right now would be to assume that old answers and certainties are still valid. With the disappearance of the old, anti-neoliberal common ground, and the emergence of new struggles, we must not only revisit the question of who ‘we’ are (or were). We must also construct a new ‘we’. We need a new attentiveness to emerging responses to the present conjuncture. We need a capacity to recognise at what levels these responses communicate and an active effort to identify the points where they overlap and reinforce each other. In other words, we need – collectively – to create, identify and name new common grounds.
The work of naming a common ground is for the most part analytic: it seeks to identify the components and directions of different trajectories, and to act back on them to strengthen commonalities, work through tensions that can be resolved, recognise the sources of those that can’t. Of course, the act of naming something as a common ground always entails proposing a partial synthesis; but this synthesis can only be as effective as the depth of the analysis that underpins it. It only works to the extent that what it names means something to those to whom it speaks.
Common grounds, like middle grounds, have a double character. On the one hand they have an ‘objective’ side: diverse practices, subjectivities, struggles and projects may share common aspects, or even resonate with one another, even if the one is unaware of the other. On the other hand, common grounds may have a subjective side, which requires a certain self-awareness and the ability to recognise what’s common in other struggles or projects. The ‘one no’ rejection of neoliberalism is an obvious example of a self-aware, subjective common ground. It takes an active effort to identify common grounds, but identifying and maintaining them helps make them more effective. This self-awareness creates a feedback loop that can allow the common ground to gain consistency and exceed the established middle ground’s ability to contain it. Common grounds contain an element of autonomy, asking their own questions on their own terms.
This leads to the next question: how do common grounds affect middle grounds? To begin with, this often occurs in ways that are invisible, as centrifugal forces countering the middle ground’s centripetal pull. They are new practices and ways of living and thinking that deviate from the synthesis; they spread out without necessarily becoming a visible challenge to the middle. Think of the many hidden struggles of factory or office workers that slow down the pace of work without organising a strike; the impact on society of gays and lesbians carving out of niches for their desires; of the syncretic religions of Latin America and Africa, where indigenous and slaves practised their traditions right under the nose of the colonisers. Think of the advent of the pill and the way it gave women more power over their own bodies, producing mutations in sexual relations, in social roles and identities.
Such phenomena become visible when they rub up against the middle ground, coming into conflict with existing institutions and practices. Common grounds problematise the way that the middle ground has composed the world, posing problems that it can’t get to grips with. The effects of such unnamed common grounds and the mutations they produce can still be limited, and are often accompanied by some form of disqualification or repression. Common grounds become more powerful and their effects more pronounced when they are made both visible and named. This is when their centrifugal force is turned into open antagonism.
But this antagonism is not simply an end in itself. During the 1990s, when the neoliberal middle ground was at its strongest, its most ‘hegemonic’, it was necessary to name and maintain an antagonism that remained at a distance to the middle ground precisely because one of neoliberalism’s dogmas – the ‘end of history’ – had proclaimed the end of all antagonism. Today, the situation is different. Globally, the left appears to be weak, but the simultaneous and equivalent weakness of the middle ground gives ‘us’ a unique ability to intervene into the shaping of the new middle ground. The work of naming new common grounds is at the same time the work of increasing our power to shape the outcome of the many global crises, by influencing the way they are dealt with.
We should be aware, however, that the emergence of a common ground that unsettles a middle ground is not necessarily a good thing. We could think here of the genesis of neoliberalism itself. The Mont Pelerin Society, founded by Friedrich Hayek in 1947, studied free-market ideas throughout Keynesianism’s ‘golden age’, as did that circle of admirers that gathered around Russian-American writer and philosopher Ayn Rand in the 1950s. The Mont Pelerin Society’s members included George Shultz and Milton Friedman – Shultz went on to serve in the Nixon and Reagan administrations and, at the University of Chicago, both men trained the ‘Chicago boys’ who liberalised Latin American economies in the 1970s and ’80s. The young Alan Greenspan, who later became Chairman of the Federal Reserve, was a member of Rand’s circle. These free-market thinkers and activists articulated a common ground that profoundly unsettled the Keynesian/Fordist middle and went on to destroy it.
Towards new common grounds?
But while we might appear to be trapped in limbo, history is still being made. In the last few years we have seen the irruption of a multiplicity of struggles, some more visible than others. In parts of the global North a direct action movement against climate change and for climate justice has emerged and grown rapidly. There’s been an increase in political activity around universities – such as the wave of occupations and strikes across Italy against the country’s Education Reform Bill, and mass protests against the raising of tuition fees and job losses at the University of California. In some cases, protest movements have emerged around issues directly connected to the financial crisis, for example, in Iceland, Ireland, France (remember ‘bossnapping’?); or, as in Greece, they have tapped into the widespread social malaise concerning the lack of prospects for the ‘700-euro generation’. In Latin America, surely the part of the world where left forces are most ascendant, there have been explosive indigenous struggles around the control of natural resources. Indigenous people in Peru successfully confronted the government and its army to prevent the destruction of forests and livelihoods in the pursuit of new sources of oil. Elsewhere, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has fought the Nigerian army to a standstill and disrupted several of Shell’s operations in the area. In South Korea, sacked workers occupying the SsangYong car plant in Seoul fought pitched battles with the police and army, only to be dislodged after a massive security operation.
While the list could go on and on, it is hard to avoid the impression that these struggles have remained relatively separate from each other. By and large, they have not resonated sufficiently to constitute new common grounds. But: we can be certain on a few points and, from here, it may be possible to identify some emergent tendencies. First and foremost, we know that in an epochal crisis such as this one, both new middle and new common grounds will initially have to emerge around the problematics that brought the old era to its knees.
Take again the crisis of Fordism. By the 1970s, not only had persistently high wages led to a crisis of profitability, there were also widespread fears that unions had become too strong, the state too expansive and too bureaucratic, life too uniform. The success of the neoliberal project, at least in its Anglo-American heartlands, lay partly in the fact that it effectively tackled these problems, that it captured previously ‘deviant’ desires, discourses and practices by promising individuals the ability to realise them. When neoliberalism crushed the unions, shrank the welfare bureaucracy, ended stagnation and beat inflation, it on the one hand effectively addressed the problems that brought the old New Deal to its knees, and on the other, laid the groundwork for a new set of systemic problems to emerge.
The first, most immediately obvious, problematic apparent in the crisis of neoliberalism appears very different, depending on where you are standing. What from the top looks like an ‘economic crisis’ (not enough growth, not enough profits, not enough demand) is experienced, from below, as a ‘crisis of social reproduction’. Unemployment is soaring and national deficits are placing ever-greater constraints on social security. The zombie-liberal response has been ultimately self-defeating: bail out the banks and some well-connected industries (but at huge cost to governments, increasing deficit spending), try to re-inflate the bubble of cheap credit, and hope that someone will borrow the money that is made available. Alas, there is no source of mass demand, no consumer of last resort, no new large-scale investment opportunities. Along this road lies nothing but future ruin.
These two perspectives on the same crisis obviously call forth two different ‘logical’ responses. While the reaction of zombie-liberalism makes sense according to its own (undead) logic, the logical response to the crisis of social reproduction is perhaps a strategy of commoning. This would be a defence, creation and expansion of resources held in common and accessible to all: expanding public transport, socialising health care, guaranteeing a basic income, and so on. This type of strategy would achieve two linked and essential goals. First, it would address our immediate fears of losing our livelihoods – because it would create spaces where social reproduction becomes possible outside the crisis-ridden circuits of capital. Second, it would counter the atomisation caused by three decades of neoliberal subjectivation in markets – just as engaging in market-based interactions tends to create market-subjects, engaging in commoning tends to create ‘commonistic’ subjectivities. And if another, equally ‘logical’, response to the economic crisis is the attempt to exclude certain people from collective resources, then the creation of open commons as a response to the crisis of social reproduction would counteract this, too. Open commons would undermine the nativist, racist politics that are gaining ground, certainly in Europe, and in parts of Africa and Asia.
A second central problematic is that of the biocrisis, of the many socio-ecological crises that are currently afflicting the world as a result of the contradiction between capital’s need for never-ending growth and the fact that we live on a finite planet. Again, the biocrisis has two faces. From the perspective of governments and capital, it looks like an emerging threat to social stability. Climate change is undermining livelihoods, which increases the number of people forced to secure their reproduction through extra-legal means. Large-scale movements of ‘climate refugees’ are feared by many governments. Piracy is a response by Somali fisherfolk and others to over-fishing off the Horn of Africa. But states and capital also perceive precisely these threats to social stability as opportunities to relegitimise political authority, to expand government powers and to kick-start a new round of ‘green’ economic growth, fuelled by uranium and austerity.
But the biocrisis, as the name implies, is one that threatens life; and disproportionately the lives of those who have done the least to cause it. Increasingly, the movements coalescing around this contradiction – between capital and life, growth and limits – are doing so around the notion of climate justice: the idea that responses to the crisis should undo rather than exacerbate existing injustices and imbalances of power, and that their construction should involve the direct participation of those affected.
Of course, we cannot be sure that new middle and common grounds will emerge around either of these issues – the economic crisis/crisis of social reproduction and the biocrisis – but we are convinced that any successful new project will need to address both.
From commons to constitutions
Allowing a new common ground to emerge involves a moment of grace, a stepping back from the assumptions, tactics and strategies of the anti-neoliberal, counter-globalist protest cycle of the turn of the century. The common ground constructed and maintained from that period must be recomposed through the prism of our contemporary situation.
The counter-globalisation movement was suspicious of – often even opposed to – institutions per se, constituted forms of power. This suspicion was obvious, for example, in the tension within one of its most institutionalised forms, the World Social Forum (WSF). The reason for the counter-globalisation movement’s scepticism was, of course, well founded: the result of the generalised recognition that neoliberal ideology had successfully colonised most social democratic parties and trade unions.
But when the crisis of neoliberalism irrupted, it became apparent that this mistrust of institutions had translated into an inability to consistently shape politics and the economy. Antagonism against institutions as an end in itself is a dead end. The power to vacate institutions leaves a void that politics, which abhors vacuum, tends to cover up with the calculations of piecemeal cooptation. Moments of antagonism are either part of ongoing processes of building autonomy and constituting new forms of power, or they risk dissipation, or even worse, backlashes. Today, it is necessary to have more than the sporadic show of strength: we need forms of organisation that start from the collective management of needs, that politicise the structures and mechanisms of social reproduction, and build force from there. What form could these take in the present climate? Campaigns against foreclosures, around the cost of utility bills, private debt, energy resources…? In any case, what is needed are interventions that start from shared life and acquire their consistency there; that employ moments of antagonism in order to increase their constituent power, rather than as ends in themselves.
If a decade ago, with the neoliberal doctrine at the height of its power and most institutional roads well and truly blocked, outright rejection was a credible tactic, the brittle ground of today presents us with very different problems.
We do, in fact, have some present examples of important transformations that have managed to inscribe themselves in institutional forms. The most remarkable are undoubtedly the constituent processes in Bolivia and Ecuador, which have resulted in political constitutions that represent radical innovations not only in relation to the countries’ histories, but to constitutional law itself. First of all, because they give a form to a new arrangement of forces in which, for the first time in their history, the vast majority of the population actually has a voice, and some degree of representation. More than that, however, in instituting pluri-nationality as a principle of the state, both of them signal a remarkable break with modern notions of sovereignty by recognising multiple, autonomous sovereign forms within the state itself, as well as acknowledging the historical debt of the colonisation process. In the case of Ecuador, in fact, it is not only pluri-nationality, but also the indigenous concept of ‘the good life’ (sumak kausay) and the ‘rights of nature’ that are made into principles. The latter, a unique invention in legal history, follows directly from the former: ‘the good life’ necessarily involves the environment in which one lives – not as the source from which, but as the medium in which, one subsists. The idea that, in the modern parliamentary state, the world had found a definitive, non-perfectible form, was central to the ‘end of history’ doctrine. While emphatically opposing the doctrine, the alterglobalist cycle seemed to accept the premise in inverse form: institutions were not subject to change. But rejecting institutions as such does not follow necessarily from rejecting institutions-as-we-know-them.
But these constitutions can only be a beginning, and in a certain way, it is after they are written that the real constituent process begins: that of filling the letter of the text with real transformation. This, indeed, is the real test that the Latin American ‘Pink Tide’ will have to confront very soon: it is not so much in an increasingly organised backlash (see Honduras), but in the future of its own most-vaunted ‘success’ stories, that the question mark lies. Of course, this is also a matter of new middle and common grounds: a question of how far from the old middle ground these processes can move, and what new common grounds will have to be constructed in order to affect them. The recent experiences in Latin America have been, and remain, contradictory: the recognition of ‘the rights of nature’ and ‘the good life’ goes hand-in-hand with a resurrection of ‘developmentalism’, increased exploitation of natural resources, and a renewed emphasis on primary commodity exports. The question is: has the constituent power of existing movements been entirely spent in this process? Is the coming time one of consolidating gains instead of raising the game – of tactical rearguard manoeuvres rather than strategic movements? In Brazil, as in Bolivia, Venezuela etc., will new dynamics below the state level rekindle the transformative energy that created the present situation, or will we see its cooling off and crystallisation?
How relevant are these processes, and these questions, to those of us outside Latin America? In many ways the continent, with institutional actors responsive to social movements’ common ground, seems like an anomaly. Indeed its anomalous status is perhaps a symptom of neoliberalism’s breakdown. Most of the world faces very different symptoms and a different set of questions: If zombie-liberalism is an ongoing form of governance, then how can social movements affect the wider world? If there is no dominant middle ground for emergent common grounds to rub up against then how are struggles made visible? How do we form an antagonism against an incoherent enemy? If neoliberal subjectivities continue to be reproduced then how do we interrupt this process and create new subjects with expanded horizons?
However, many current struggles are also premised on the idea that zombie-liberalism won’t persist and a new middle ground will emerge. Just think of the movements around climate change where the battle is not only against inaction but simultaneously against the manner in which the problem is being framed and the solutions being offered. From this perspective the Latin American anomaly can seem like an outpost from a potential future and its problematics can suddenly seem timely. This is the true difficulty of acting in a crisis. When the future is so unclear we must operate in many different worlds at once. We must name a common ground, while keeping it open to new directions. We must look for institutional interlocutors while accepting that, in part, we will have to create them ourselves. We must set the conditions for a new middle ground to emerge while not getting trapped by it.
These are all, of course, difficult tasks but it is how a new ‘we’ is constructed. The smallest step may seem near impossible now, but we should remember that once a new common ground begins to take shape, things can move very quickly. Such is the fragility of the current state of things that a little movement could have a dramatic effect. It may not take too much to tip a world gripped by entropy into a world full of potential.
Turbulence is a writing and publishing project made up of seven people based in four countries and on three continents. We first encountered each other within the counter-globalisation movement. Our hope was to provide an ongoing space in which to think through, debate and articulate the political, social, economic and cultural theories of this ‘movement of movements’, as well as the networks of diverse practices and alternatives that surround it.
We didn’t want to become yet another journal claiming to offer a ‘snapshot of the movement’. Instead we hoped to carve out a space where we can carry on difficult debates and investigations into the political realities of our time – engaging the real differences in vision, analysis and strategy that exist among us.
David Harvie, Keir Milburn, Tadzio Mueller, Rodrigo Nunes, Michal Osterweil, Kay Summer, Ben Trott
This issue of Turbulence is illustrated by the series ‘Flat Horizon’, by Sao Paulo-based Brazilian photographer Marcos Vilas Boas. He has photographed seascapes since 1994, and started this series of pictures of nocturnal images of maritime horizon lines in 1997. Apart from the theme, what they have in common is the use of long exposure, which turns even the subtlest changes in weather conditions or physical movements into elements producing the unique moment – of reflection, observation, and assimilation of the weather and the landscape — captured in each. These long-exposure images serve as a good metaphor of the kind of renewed attentiveness to subtle transformations that this issue proposes: their surface, limbo-like stillness is underlined by the ‘millionaire contribution’ of myriad small variations.
So Who Is This Aimed At?
The short answer is: anyone wanting to think about how to change the world. That is, potentially everybody. But doing so isn’t straightforward. This isn’t a collection of lowest common denominator writings aimed at some abstract ‘public’ whose common sense we can second-guess. Even if we could, we’d much rather undermine it. To go through the experience of thinking differently – in a different way or from a different perspective – creates new possibilities. And perspectives aren’t different takes on a same thing, but each one a world in itself. Likewise, words aren’t different ‘clothes’ for one object, but can create their own objects. So thinking differently involves engaging with ideas that seem alien because they go against some of our assumptions about the world, or come from within contexts we are unfamiliar with. Some of the writing here might seem difficult or abstract – we have tried to contextualise pieces and explain technical jargon – but each article is open to anyone prepared to make the effort of reading it. Reading is a two-way violence: a text can change us to the extent that we are willing to appropriate it to our own ends. It’s the same wager as love: if you jump in, you won’t come back to the same point (and may regret it, or be disappointed); but if you don’t jump in, how can you know what you’re missing?
Turbulence is the disruption caused by movement through a non-moving element, or an element moving at a different speed. Consider the flow of water over a simple smooth object, such as a sphere. At very low speeds the flow is laminar. In other words, it is very smooth, though it may involve vortices on a large scale. As the speed increases, at some point the transition is made to a turbulent – or, ‘chaotic’ – flow. You can see the same thing when you turn on a tap.
While a full understanding of turbulence remains one of the unsolved problems in physics, this chaotic flow is enormously productive. Insects fly in a sea of vortices, surrounded by tiny eddies and whirlwinds that are created when they move their wings. For years, scientists said that, theoretically, the bumblebee should not be able to fly, as its wings are so small relative to its body’s mass: an airplane built with the same proportions would never get off the ground. For conventional aerodynamics, turbulence is a problem to be controlled and eliminated. But once we take turbulence into account as a productive force, then it’s easy to see how bumblebee wings produce more lift than predicted by conventional analyses. The aerodynamics are incredibly unsteady and difficult to analyse – but it works!