Autocatalytic Antagonism

One reason our society remains locked in hatred and stupidity is our unwillingness to be uncomfortable, to have the honest conversation, to feel challenged and be changed. Such is the minor and quotidian cycle of accepting what appears to be the most acceptable of acceptable things that perpetuates not only inequality, but a situation of “cowardice” and “unfreedom.” Because we are afraid to jeopardize our own situation, we accept a situation that jeopardizes millions of others, though we rarely give this a moment’s thought. As Jeff Buckley sang, “Our mutiliation is to gain from the system.” These are of course incredibly difficult patterns to break. Thus the need for a daily effort to break them and first of all to break them in ourselves: to combat the inertia, the complacency, the inaction, the silence. We simply must risk our reputation. We must refind our identity in a common cooperation against lies and blindness. All other projects should run secondary to this. If it comes to it, we must become unrecognizable, even to those who love us. We must risk what we have been for what’s coming…

For the State will continue to organize oppression and capitalism will continue to reduce us to exchangeables―and as part of the laughing masses, we are right where it wants us to be―unless we antagonize, unless we band together in a singular intention to antagonize without rest, and to affirm an antagonism-to-capital that is irrepressible. The comfortable position invariably perpetuates the system of inequality and oppression; it is inert and “timeless”; its happiness is static and circular. Only through a practice of immanent and constant antagonism is another form of subjectivity given a chance: a time productive of another collective, with a happiness that loses itself in the cause of the other and not in the system of the organized world.

This is not the antagonism of armed revolt, a new political party, or organized secession. It is rather, following Negri, the antagonism of an immediate separation, effective materially and intellectually and directed cooperatively to the production of the other’s chance: a negative activity of separation rooted in a refusal of the exploited situation. This means antagonizing ourselves out of our own torpor, our own enjoyment of the system, our “mutilation.” It means being dissatisfied with the self-orientation of our own quest (for material wealth, knowledge, social relationship) and instead engaging ourselves on the collective front of antagonism. Participation in that collective takes place not through a simulacrum of information but through active contributions to a knowledge base that is indissociable from a new time and a new practice of being, grounded in an episteme that is radically separate from the circular time of packaged laughter, the blasé ontology of the “disillusioned” whose knowledge can only serve the continued mutilation.

Antagonism means heeding a responsibility that prevents us from sleeping and only deepens the more we respond to it: an advance into the eternity of the struggle. But though oriented collectively, it also implies each us traveling our own irreversible trajectories, in dimensions that are plural and irreducible to each other. For unity lies not in a common cause or agreed agenda, but in the direct work of antagonism: the negative labor that refuses the commands of the capitalist-military State and that co-operates for the sake of constituting not an alternative but the break itself―an “alternative” that, however indefinite it may seem, is nonetheless definite in its moment, concrete in its product, and experienced as determinative for being. These many moments, products, and experiences disperse themselves throughout the fabric of society like Benjamin’s messianic splinters, ever ready to be resumed by the other for the continued production of the new collective subjectivity and its continued antagonism to capital. No matter how uncomfortable it makes us, no matter how much we want to crawl back, no matter how much we’d like to think about something else, it is there in this “eternal” cooperation that we will find what can genuinely be called our future.

Antagonism-to-capital, for Negri, is inseparable from human creativity and autonomy. Antagonism acts in this sense as a sort of pure telos that need not ever be reabsorbed by the system against which it is antagonistic. It is not in a dialectical relationship where the negative (antagonism) would have to be negated or reconciled with what it negates (the capitalist time of command and its law of value). On the contrary, the “negation” is in full force as the affirmation of the radical break. Its “value” is immanent to its activity and is neither exchangeable nor negligible. Its products are valuable in themselves, meaning that they cannot be measured by the law of value operative in capital. Antagonism is itself productive and powerful, but it is a counterforce that does not need to negotiate with or assimilate itself to the forces it counters (even if that happens when Power tries to neutralize it). In Negri’s view, the subjectivity produced through this antagonism is auto-valorizing and auto-determining. Creativity is a kind of use of life and power against the exploitation of life by Power.

Antagonism therefore constitutes a time of life that is shared, inciting singularities to enter the commons and engage in the production of antagonistic subjectivity. “Revolution” is a long-term project and its organization is inseparable from negative labor. The communist “event” is thus, from the perspective of the World, the result of a long work of liberation, whereas from the “communist’s” perspective, the event is the experience of communism itself and its negative work. That work―which generates new desires, new languages, new beings―creates a surplus that cannot be exploited by capital and that the state cannot command. Living labor, by definition antagonistic to the exploitation of life (wage labor), tends toward an autonomous, auto-catalytic “cognitive” surplus knowledge of communism that cannot be “digested” by capital or translated into any of its schemes. The wager is this: to accumulate in the commons the results of our excess, our negative and cognitive labor. Our proximity to the coming communism increases to the extent that we accumulate and organize or let-be-catalyzed the products of this labor. Antagonism, in other words, is not an incremental change to what exists, nor does it project some sort of radical change that it could imagine anticipating. It is more profoundly a qualitative leap into new temporal being: direct experience of communism.

The distinction between struggle and hope therefore is not a meaningful one in practice. “Hope” is flimsy unless it is active as antagonistic creativity, as life productive of new being. It will never let any illusion or any guarantee of future prosperity pacify. It will never give up its indignation and dissatisfaction with the situation of exploitation, but it will also never lose the love it finds in its poverty-of-world. What “transcends” capitalist society is in fact an immanent Real: the living alternative to be built upon relentlessly and with the highest sense of dedication to the other and to the future. Those thus antagonized can only act in defense of this Real. “Hope” is only hope in you: that you will take up our work of liberation and the responsibility to struggle against mutilation and for the new time. More than hope, it is an anticipation convinced of the coming of what it anticipates through its very life and work―through the autocatalytic antagonism constantly “left alive” in a subjectivity that knows communism immanently.

The notion of a grand rupture, shock, or intervention in the system is therefore outdated. It is again based on a false ontology of the event as something sudden, unprecedented, mysterious, or “befalling.” The idea that things could become different while I myself stay the same is also erroneous. For Negri, productivity is always a production of subjectivity itself (not “also”). We should also probably not pretend like anything is going to happen “later.” We are, right now, producing what will have happened, what will have been the “collectivized” subjectivity, the temporality proper to communism. We should not fantasize about the spectacular and the extreme, for then we will miss all the cues for this transformation that remains “invisible” to the World. Antagonism against the system is just as “real” as the big-screen productions of Power witnessed on television. As immanent practice, it is even even powerful than it. Lives committed to antagonism in common are not only powerful, but productive of a commons that capital can never grasp and which can only be erased when people give up on that life and forget how much it is, “a project worth our seriousness.”

The experience of communism at stake here not only can happen through knowledge. The thesis expressed above about cognitive labor suggests that it can only happen through it, but of course where knowledge is inseparable from practices and the subjects that produce them in common. Negri writes,

To put it in Foucauldian terms, when we are immersed in the crisis of an episteme we must place ourselves in circumstances and conditions that enable us to modify, along with the systems that organize knowledge, the episteme’s forms of production and the subjects that produce it. To deconstruct systems means, in this case, to reconstruct the forms of knowledge.

Once it is understood that subjectivity is itself a production, it comes as no surprise that our indifference and complacency is a product of the system of banality “that pervades our minds.” Individuality itself is a trap, a form of subjectivity-knowing that is perfectly digestible by capital and State command, entirely conformed to its law of value, to time-as-measure, and to the alienation of human means. The excess over the system can never be reduced to the transcendental presuppositions of individualism, for it is immediately and immanently “singular-common,” a shared work. Negri’s wager is ultimately that time itself is of a collective essence and thus not ruled by the debts of history’s scripts. Without collectivity, the only time that individuals can know is capitalism’s. But the immeasurable new being is known to be collective  through and through. “Consciousness rises up as consciousness of antagonistic collectivity.” Irrepressible, it is also irresistible: autocatalytic antagonism. Only this consciousness frees itself from commodification and subordination to the system of banality, since it emerges in a radical separation from it, from a refusal of the exploitative razzmatazz and its mutilations. Separation is immediately collectivization. Its time is (of) collective essence. The task for each of us, then, is to work our singular out into the commons, so as to create a commons that is singularizing and antagonizing, a “stretched” event that thus makes history, perhaps without ever even seeming to appear there. A clandestine life in-common, destined to find itself in the other, to let its cause be the other’s, and thus to cause the other to find itself in our cause.

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One Response to Autocatalytic Antagonism

  1. Rex Styzens says:

    The truth of this leaves me feeling very out-of-sync with the current Zeitgeist. You are the only American I know daring to tell the truth. Admittedly, I do not know many who can function at this level of political philosophy.

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