Pascal Nicolas-Le Strat
2008
Translated by Millay Hyatt
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Pour consulter le texte en français: Un contre-pouvoir constituant

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Pour consulter le texte en portugais : Contra-poder constituinte

A constituent counter-power

How are we to conceive of our struggles when the front lines keep dispersing? Far from dissolving them, this dissemination hardens and reinforces them. It is evident that the conditions of the antagonism have been profoundly transformed. Political issues emerge from who knows where and from nowhere in particular. Toni Negri and Michael Hardt have argued that empire is an inclusive system: it eludes the center/periphery dialectic and is based instead on demarcations and ruptures that are constantly being refigured. [1] The contradictions encompass the totality of the forms of life but not in a singular and unified way. These contradictions manifest irregularly but intensely; they can act imperceptibly and with extremely brutality. What holds for the level of empire (macro) holds equally for the level of each individual (micro). Thus, for instance, it has become impossible to say where the work place and work time begins and ends. Instead, workers incorporate production objectives and constraints into their own beings, and can never rid themselves of them completely. The system of exploitation derives its power from this absence of centralized work and, accordingly, from the impossibility for the worker of constructing an exteriority, of conceiving an “elsewhere” outside of work. Every tension or oppression is experienced on the level of the worker’s entire existence without the ability to anticipate the moment when it will crystallize and become focused. This tension envelops the worker like a net that captures every activity but that can snap or tear at any point. We are speaking from the perspective of method here. We harbor absolutely no nostalgia for the period where (class) positions were utterly clear and where the lines of division were kept completely unambivalent even if this meant stifling all political dissent. Under current conditions, no one knows, a priori, what the balance of power will be, what problems it will attach itself to, where it will emerge. No (class) position can claim to be privileged in any way, whether it be in terms of reason or lucidity, antagonistic power, or strategic relevance. Struggles take place in multiple locales with a wide variety of stakes. It is this mobility and reactivity of the antagonisms that interests us here. We do not want to introduce a hierarchy of any kind into the different forms of resistance. Whether they take place on a macro or on a micro level, whether they relate to life or to work, whether they emerge from within institutions or are in a more autonomous mode, whether they concern the social realm, the arts, or urban space—these different forms of resistance should be respected politically for what they are, for what they produce, for the processes in which they involve us, for their antagonistic potential, and for the experiences of life or of work they hold in store for us.

We thus want to claim a principle of symmetry. We cannot accept the disqualification of an experiment before it is even possible to determine its reach or its significance simply because it is held to be insufficiently autonomous or mindlessly reformist. “It is useless to rack our brains over whether a proposal is reformist or revolutionary; what matters is that it enters into the constituent process.” [2] There was a period when it was considered good political form to construct hierarchies between the different fields of struggle, as if a breakthrough for one would necessarily bring about an advance for the others and, for this reason, justified its strategic advantage over them. Thankfully, the sixties and seventies showed that struggles associated with the forms of life (particularly relations between the sexes and the overall relation to the norm) are the equivalent of those associated with work. This democratic equivalence between the different movements and forms of resistance—this principle of symmetry—is a political gain, which, incidentally, is coherent with contemporary capitalism, in which there is no longer a decisive difference between production and reproduction, between the time of work and the time of life.

The crucial question then is not where the next struggles will emerge or on what level they will become constituted. Our task is rather to take measure of these struggles’ political, intellectual, and perceptible capacity for bringing about new forms of experience and of addressing the decisive political issues—the issues, that is, that concern the very articulation of the apparatuses of domination. Experiences of struggle are never, or should never, be exclusively negative. In fact, all undertakings “that pose the power of resistance as homologous or even similar to the power that oppresses us are of no more use.” [3] Counter-power can only ever be a constituent counter-power. Social and political experiments must be evaluated in light of these double stakes: Do they make legible the conditions of the antagonism? Do they create the foundations for autonomy and emancipation? These experiments have to be as inventive and reactive as are the contemporary forms of domination. They must not aim at “making power better than it is but at rendering visible the hidden apparatuses as they construct practices of resistance.” [4] Judith Revel is adamant on this point in her analysis of power relations, arguing that resistance cannot merely function as a counter-power of reaction. Life resists by means of its ability to invent and create; it resists in its power of auto-production and re-subjectivation and the re-appropriation of each of our singularity.[5]

This counter-power is, then, a constitutive counter-power that emerges from within. By maintaining this point of view, we can gauge at what point a situation can suddenly reverse. At what point does what was constituted as resistance begin functioning like domination? Up until what point can an experiment sustain its antagonistic tension? The oscillation can be rapid. An experiment winds down, its power of invention exhausted. It loses its intensity, slows down, and is overtaken by the ordinary modalities of domination. It is progressively reformulated in the terms of the dominant power: in the conventional determination of the sexes, in the segmentation of space, in the disqualifying hierarchisation of knowledges, in the inequality of work, and so forth. We cannot be satisfied with saying that the experiment was “recuperated” and leave it at that. We have to do here with a process of an entirely different magnitude, a process that no experiment can avoid. Every situation is permanently reversible in a context where opposition can only come from within and can only develop in a constituent mode. Everything that is created always remains susceptible to being (re-) absorbed, becoming banal. This tension is inherent in contemporary conditions of resistance.

For every new struggle, we must emphasize the force of resistance and emancipation it demonstrates but, symmetrically, also the limits and obstacles it stumbles up against. The work of analysis must seize the movement in its entirety, by taking into account the effects of reversal and fluctuation that will inevitably occur. The analysis itself is subject to this tension. What we observe in one moment can reveal an entirely different aspect once the socio-political situation changes. What we problematize in one context has to be treated from an entirely different perspective once circumstances shift. Sociology cannot, of course, escape the mechanisms it describes.

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[1] Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin, 2004.
[2] Ibid., p. 289.
[3] Ibid., p. 90.
[4] Judith Revel, Michel Foucault – Expériences de la pensée, éd. Bordas, 2005, p. 134.
[5] Ibid., p. 229.

 

Pascal Nicolas-Le Strat
(Translated by Millay Hyatt)