A climate of disobedience: the coming destituent flood

  • September 22, 2014

Environment & Ecology

Flood Wall Street signals radical disobedience, a destituent power that will rise to inundate the institutions of the political and financial order.

Today, September 22, 2014, a flood will descend upon Wall Street and financial centers across the globe, an emergent flood of collective disobedience, creativity, and shared compassion and existential terror to confront ghoulish capitalism, states, corporations, and financial institutions relentlessly unraveling the planet’s delicate network of ecosystems. Flood Wall Street will bring swelling waters forcing a necessary disruption to the flow of capital, which acts as the pathogenic blood pumped through the planetary body progressively bringing about its decay.

The flood will come as global emissions continued to increase 2.1 percent in 2013; as consensus is being built around constructing emissions reductions in the form of voluntary pledges rather than binding legal obligations in the 2015 Paris climate agreement; as current voluntary emissions reduction pledges are associated with levels of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere exceeding 580 parts per million (ppm) by the end of the century (with prominent scientists increasingly arguing that the 350 ppm threshold associated with the generally agreed upon “safe” 2°C of warming is itself too high); and as 150-200 species go extinct daily in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in planetary history (how many just while you are reading this article?).

The gravity of the tragedy in which we are living defies psychological assimilation, a putrid sun at which we cannot bare to look for more than mere moments as even fleeting glances leave us quaking and disoriented as we shuffle along the abyss. Flood Wall Street is a harbinger of gathering waters of radical disobedience, of a destituent power that will rise to completely inundate the institutions of this political order and the power relationships that traverse them, to halt their operation. Our collective waters will finally recede in a withdrawal of all our vital energies and support for the legitimacy and representation of the political order to the vanishing point of the state and capitalism on new horizons.

The praxis and theory of destituent power, which Flood Wall Street embodies and announces, constitutes a radical disobedience that consummates itself in a rejection of and subtraction from the extant political order. In the urgent present, it reflects the pressing need to disrupt and deactivate the continuous functioning of capitalism that is destroying the biosphere. The virtually unparalleled level of scientific consensus surrounding the gravity and imminence/immanence of the threat of climate change, as well as the almost daily release of further documentation of the extent of intersecting ecological crises, cannot assail or forestall the economic logic of capitalism.

Neoliberal Rationality

The penetration of neoliberal political rationality into every corner of the global social space and its generalized application to an expanding domain of social life correspond with and extend the reductionist logic of capital incessantly striving to transmogrify the dense universe of heterogeneous, non-fungible human and ecological values into the smooth monolithic texture of economic value. The relative imperviousness of the continuing flows of financing from Wall Street — as the embodiment of global financial capital — to extractive industries, even as these businesses’ activities are directly and transparently causing the climate catastrophe (not to mention their literal mutilation of communities and ecosystems), testifies to this singular rapaciousness.

Through its univocal conception of value, capital serves to shape our actions and how we imagine our relationships with one another and the ecosystems that support us. It also mediates how we cooperate together to reproduce our world. This reconfiguration of personal and social life in strictly economic terms obliterates a whole ecosystem of values which are foundational to the continued maintenance of life on this planet. This inherent drive of capitalism to commodify ecological values, when multiplied and extended globally by its structural imperative for endless expansion, leads to the despoliation of the natural world we are ever more acutely experiencing. In its injunction to “Stop Capitalism! End the Climate Crisis!”, Flood Wall Street diagnoses a critical node in the network of power relations suffusing global society that must be resisted and dismantled in order to avert planetary disaster.

Yet we remain obedient to and actively enable this system to persist despite the immiseration, deracination, and chaos it engenders and on which it feeds because of the productive nature of power and the occlusion of power’s operations that ensure we largely misapprehend its elaboration and functioning. As Foucault suggested, power is successful to the extent that it is able to mask its operations. Power operates to produce us as subjects who then act as accomplices in our self-enslavement through obedience to this system and the deformed set of values it fosters.

Voluntary Servitude

The political logic of modernity that we have inherited and that informs our discourses can in many ways be understood as a response to the lack of a transcendent objective foundation for this obedience and the resultant need for artificially constructing it and ensuring its maintenance. However, paradoxically, this political project for securing obedience cannot completely negate disobedience, as this would entail the negation of the basic fundamental assumptions of modern subjectivity — freedom, autonomy, and self-determination — those which founded the modern political order (though are not exclusive to it) and which characterize the modern subject, on which this order is predicated and for which it was originally created to sustain.

In order to neutralize the most destabilizing and subversive effects of these foundational qualities which animate disobedience, modern political thought transformed these principles into “voluntary servitude” under the state. This reigning mode of voluntary servitude is everywhere identifiable, permeating our social existence and is reinforced through the operations of power mechanisms that appear to place the naturalness of the state and capitalism beyond assailment. Flood Wall Street constitutes an activation of the latent and suppressed disobedience our political order strives to contain and manage, and its effective release and exercise requires a careful understanding of the functioning of power.

We are accustomed to the view of power as that force which is external to the actor and impinges on, constrains, represses, or subordinates her actions. However, following Foucault, power is productive and creative, that which also forms and formulates the subject, providing coordinates for her social positioning that she, in turn, vivifies and lives through thereby rendering such position coextensive with her social identity and orienting the vectors of her desires. In this way a normative discourse, concerning, for instance, gender or heteronormativity — always and everywhere already invested with power relations — only persists as a norm to the extent that it is (re)produced through its instantiations in subjects acting out this idealization in social practice. This is how subjects are both the effect and vehicle of power.

The norm is reproduced through the acts of subjects that seek to approximate it, through the normalizing idealizations concretized in and through these acts. Discursive regimes and normative constraints are not external to individuals, but are guaranteed by individuals subscribing to them and reproduced through being subjected by them. The operation of power through subjectification and subjects in turn self-activating these mechanisms of power effaces power relations and dominance, rendering them difficult to perceive because we, in apparent freedom, participate in their (re)production in the ways we relate to and govern ourselves and our bodies.

Crisis and Control

Power can infuse and achieve effective control “over the entire life of the population only when it becomes an integral, vital function that every individual embraces and reactivates of his or her own accord.” In this society of control, power mechanisms become immanent to the social field, enacted and reinscribed constantly through their diffusion throughout the consciousnesses and the bodies of the population across the whole of social relations. Thus, we must conceive of power as not merely suppressive or repressive, operating on its objects (“from above”), but also as productive and creative, operating within and through them (“from below”), as not in a position of exteriority to other relationships but interior to and traversing them.

This means that power, in addition to bringing about that which must be resisted, also, and more perniciously, gives rise to the forms resistance assumes. Because power shapes and configures its own resistance, it is crucial to engage in analysis of local, specific power mechanisms to properly understand the operation of power so as to apprehend modes of resistance that do not inadvertently reinscribe and reinforce those very power relationships.

The importance of scrutinizing particular power mechanisms is heightened in our present reality which, following the assessment of Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben, is characterized by a state of perpetual crisis — ecological, economic, social — a time where crisis distends and stretches forth from horizon to horizon. Its uninterrupted nature collapses it into the smooth surface of the now, divesting the concept of its traditional restriction to any temporal reference or spatial register. The expansion of security and multiplication of control have attended this phenomenon, laying bare the dominant mode of government consisting almost exclusively of governing effects, as opposed to endeavoring to ascertain and address causes.

As Agamben points out, causes are difficult and costly to determine and so governing is focused on controlling and containing effects, marshaling them in a “profitable direction.” Modulating effects assumes an undulatory character in a ceaselessly mutating, smothering security blanket that touches all points, simultaneously purporting to support the social body while enveloping it as water to a drowning victim.

The virtually complete posture of reactivity corresponding to this method of governing — with even apparently proactive, preventative measures like the deepening penetration of surveillance and increasing militarization of police forces ultimately being reducible to mere preparations for managing future effects, for governing future disorder — finds its dominant expression in the intensification of policing, which by its nature is only capable of acting on effects.

Viewed in this light, the Pentagon’s warning about civil unrest stemming from ecological shocks assumes a particularly ominous tone. In 2008, the Department of Defense’s Army Modernization Strategy analyzed the arrival of an “era of persistent conflict” stemming from competition for “depleting natural resources” that would contribute to “future resource wars over water, food and energy,” as well as increasing “anti-government and radical ideologies that potentially threaten government stability.” That same year, the Pentagon was developing a 20,000-strong force of troops to be ready to respond to “domestic catastrophes” and civil unrest.

The menacing prospects of these developments do not require much elaboration by the imagination when considering the wide, vague powers granted to the US military under existing law: “Federal military commanders have the authority, in extraordinary emergency circumstances where prior authorization by the President is impossible and duly constituted local authorities are unable to control the situation, to engage temporarily in activities that are necessary to quell large-scale, unexpected civil disturbances…”19

Destituent Power

It is within this context of the prevailing security paradigm that we must evaluate and situate the mode of political struggle Flood Wall Street betokens. The modern conception of political conflict has been predominantly understood in terms of “constituent power,” which is the creative energy or violence that, ex nihilo, is capable of creating a (new) institutional order — a new constitution and new juridical norms — whereby social relations are organized (into “constituted power”). The peculiar and aporetic character of constituent power is revealed when considering that if constituent power succeeds in creating a new legal order, constituent power will, in following its essence, instantly threaten the same constituted power it has just created.

Thus, as Rafaele Laudani notes, if constituent power with this excess is not to undo the new legal order it has just constituted, “constituent power must then, at some indeterminate but decisive threshold, begin to be neutralized and contained.” It is in this dynamic that Walter Benjamin, in his essay On the Critique of Violence, identified and located the dialectic between constituent power (as lawmaking violence) and constituted power (as law-preserving violence). The mutually constituting and reinforcing nature of security and resistance reflects this underlying dialectic between constituent power and constituted power.

The concept of destituent power, on the other hand, originates from the Colectivo Situaciones’ analysis (poder destituyente) of the uprisings in Argentina on December 19th and 20th, 2001. Destituent power exhibits a similar potency to constituent power, but operates as a continual process of open-ended withdrawal from or refusal of the juridical, institutional order. It functions completely outside the law — extra-institutionally — seeking to dismantle sovereign, constituted power altogether rather than to reform it or overthrow it and then re-institute it in a different form. Destituent power is the energy immanent to law that tends toward the latter’s dissipation and disordering in a relationship analogous to that between entropy and matter.

Destituent power, in this sense, undermines and erodes the obedience that is fundamental to and presupposed by the constituted order for its continued existence. However, destituent power is not a purely reactive or nihilistic force, but instead is creative — not in the sense of producing new institutions to replace the old, but through its deactivation of juridical norms it opens new horizons of possibilities for harmonious social and ecological relationships far exceeding what is practicable under the current destructive political order.

Constituent power’s direct confrontation with the state — through “terrorism” or insurrection — simply reinforces the security apparatus, provides more effects for it to control, and invites greater levels of repression. As destituent power, disobedience can be conceived not as direct clash with constituted power but instead as the withdrawal of consent to the political order, as a direct negation of its legitimacy. Étienne de La Boétie recognized the potency of destituent power in 1548 in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude when he wrote: “I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces?”

Benjamin also envisaged this immanent creative potential within destituent power as he attempted to identify a pure violence that could “break the false dialectics of lawmaking violence and law-preserving violence.” Following this line of reasoning, he argues that “[o]n the breaking of this cycle maintained by mythical forms of law, on the suspension [destitution] of law with all the forces on which it depends as they depend on it, finally therefore on the abolition of state power, a new historical epoch is founded.”

Thus, although a constituent power destroys law only to re-institute it again in a new form, merely perpetuating the cycle; insofar as destituent power dismantles and deposes the law once for all, it can function to open onto the terrain of a new epoch characterized by radically new possibilities. In deposing the political order, destituent power opens becomings, enabling for experimentation with new practices and the development of new knowledges that will, in turn, themselves be de-instituted in the continual and open-ended process unfolding.

Flood Wall Street

Flood Wall Street arises within and partakes of the ferment of the most recent wave of global social movements — Occupy, the Indignados, and the Arab Spring — that significantly articulated a strategy of radical disobedience and channeled a plurality of discontent into the unifying rejection and refusal of the interrelated crises wrought by capitalism.As we confront the current security paradigm of government, we must understand the critical importance of the destituent power embraced by Flood Wall Street as its waters swell to inundate the centers of global capital to block the latter’s destruction of the planet and then recede in an exodus withdrawing all support to the institutional order to open onto the wild of new possibilities.

This motif expresses how Flood Wall Street must carefully proceed to urgently bring the global machine of capital to an abrupt stop, while at the same time avoiding recuperation in the endless dialectical spiral that binds together security and resistance, through the evacuation of institutions, dissolving and dissipating them, emptying them of their support and power. This radical disobedience, in the form of destituent power, has the potential to escape from the endless dialectic of lawmaking and law-preserving violence — the most salient expression of which is the prevailing reflexive interplay between security and terrorism, with each inducing and strengthening the multiplication of the other.

Each day passes as we lay prostrate on the precipice watching the violent churning of the odious machine of capital. As Hannah Arendt argued, we voluntarily give power and legitimacy to institutions to the extent that we obey the law-making authority. Accordingly, acting with continued submissive obedience to the global capitalist order is to be complicit in its depravity and serves as an ongoing legitimation and proffering of consent to the system’s operation. In rushing torrents, Flood Wall Street is determined to follow Mario Savio’s exhortation to throw our bodies on the gears and levers and all the apparatus of the machine to wrench it to a halt.

Given the relative lack of radical militancy characterizing the political landscape, we cannot only rely on a gradual mass exodus as the climate change juggernaut continues until planetary tipping points have been reached and exponential accelerations in climatic disruptions proliferate and become irreversible. With Flood Wall Street we endeavor to bring down the Colossus of capitalism and the illegitimate political institutions — the state, corporations, financial institutions — which comprise it and act as its functional vehicles. At the same time, the flood announces the arrival of the beginning of a process of withdrawal, the beginning of an open-ended process entailing a radical reorientation of our relationships with the biosphere through practices of food sovereignty, commoning, and radical participatory democratic practices.

A Rising Tide

In this way, the concept of destitution should be understood as a “positive no”, rather than a pure negation, that in rejecting representation at once produces “a ‘self-changing’ affirmation that engenders new practices and modes of subjectification, from which the ‘no’ first derives its force.”Destituent power deactivates sovereignty, institutions and representation, thereby expanding “the field of the thinkable” as if manipulating an aperture. This capacity of destituent power to expand the thinkable, the horizon of possibilities, finds consonance in David Graeber’s analysis of the effects actualized through the neutralization of the constraints imposed by institutional bureaucracy in past revolutionary moments. With the destitution of the apparatus that limits imaginaries, the unequal structures of creativity will unravel and a proliferation of social, artistic and intellectual creativity and experimenting with new ways to see the world can flourish.

Flooding Wall Street is the incipient act of disobedience, the first wave of a rising destituent tide, suffusing the concrete, glass, steel, and material power of Wall Street with an existential “NO!” presaging the razing of the institutions of finance capital and the state, and that will finally recede in a cacophonous subtraction and reciprocal production of an opening onto new horizons of possibilities for alternative forms of social relationships and harmonious relations with ecosystems. Desertion and withdrawal of obedience and support to the institutions and representation of the constituted political order is the trajectory we must follow, but this process must be accelerated through more immediate disruptions to the flow of capital because we do not have enough time to pursue exodus at a walking pace; we must move at the pace and with the indomitable urgency of a flood.

We must urgently deactivate the operations of capital while minimizing embroilment in the spiral of the security paradigm. Simultaneously, we must conceive of ways in which the flood of the precarious, the excluded, the indebted, the refugees can withdraw their vital energies from the mutilating system of capital and its dominant actors (state, corporations, financial institutions), to swell and discover outlets for escape in an eerie tandem ballet with actual floodwaters climbing, inundating, and displacing those least responsible for and least equipped to address them. We are invoking a flood after which nothing is rebuilt — only a line of flight into the wild, a radical smooth openness, a piece of origami with indefinite dimensions that is shit-covered and delicate which we collectively begin to unfold and find we are doing the same with ourselves.

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Skye Bougsty-Marshall

Skye Bougsty-Marshall is a researcher, writer and activist working on mobilizations around COP21.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/flood-wall-street-destituent-power/

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