A Vulnerable Strength: Malaise as Energy for Social Transformation
This text is a version of a talk given at the ‘Politicisations of malaise’ event held in Barcelona on 18th January 2017
There are stories that seem to sum up historical eras or moments. One of them is told by Willy Pelletier, in a recent edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, titled "My neighbour votes for the National Front".
Pelletier is a veteran activist in far left anti-racist organisations, and in the article he narrates various actions undertaken against the Front National. His account, however, is laced with doubt and auto-critique: ultimately, these mobilisations have been unable to halt the rise of the FN. Between the lines, he offers an explanation: we learn that none of these actions ever affected anyone who sympathises with the FN, because they always took place within very closed circuits (among political activists who live in certain neighbourhoods, who speak in a certain way, who have certain values, and so on).
Pelletier meets an FN sympathiser (perhaps for the first time?) when, semi-'retired' from activism, he goes off to live with his partner in the country in the Aisne area (in Picardy). His name is Éric, a worker specialising in industrial packaging. They become great friends, and one day, after a few drinks, Éric confesses to him that he votes for Marine Le Pen. "I get goosebumps when I hear her, the way she talks about the French makes you feel proud. Besides, the FN has helped a lot of people around here."
What kind of place is Aisne? It is a typical scenario from the crisis, in the way Pelletier portrays it. Deeply rundown, with hardly any services (in health and transport), or meeting places (bars, parishes and sports associations are closing down). There is no work, everyone is in debt, young people are leaving, violence against women is on the rise, and so too is the general "feeling" of insecurity (even though robberies are uncommon). But there are also ghettos of the rich throughout the area: liberal executives or professionals who arrive from Paris and buy up decent stone houses or abandoned farms at knockdown prices.
After encountering Éric, Pelletier asks himself new questions. The moral superiority with which he previously judged (abstract, unknown) FN voters no longer adds up. There is now one of them in front of him, in flesh and bone, who has his story and his reasons. And he is his friend. Pelletier concludes the article thus: "At work, Éric thinks 'the young people' neither listen to him nor respect him...Living there, stuck in a space in decay, impotent faced with a world that no longer resists, seeing his area fill up with 'Parisians', how is it that Éric could feel 'proud'?'
Crisis of presence
Abandonment and lack of resources, unemployment and indebtedness, the breaking of the thread between generations and the destruction of meeting places...the crisis is not merely an 'economic crisis' but also one of reference points and fidelities, of beliefs and values. A cultural crisis, in the anthropological sense of 'ways of life', that runs very deep.
The Tiqqun collective proposes that we think of this as a 'crisis of presence'. What does this mean? That our presence, that is, our being in the world, is no longer firm, nor assured, nor guaranteed. Under attacked in the realm of the economic (unemployment), of the social (the rundown contexts) and of values (the absence of community or thread between generations), the things that enter in crisis "beneath the surface" are precisely our very faculties for 'standing tall' before the world. What once appeared solid begins to disintegrate: the meaning of life and reality, the subjective consistency and very fixity of things.
But the crisis of presence is not only loss or danger, but also opportunity. In what sense? The presence now crumbling is the 'sovereign presence': a kind of relation with the world in terms of dominion and control. An experience of life based upon the sharp distinction between a subject (who governs) and an object (the world to be governed). A conception of freedom as 'dominion' (over nature, over others, over time, over reality). As self-reliance and independence.
Crisis of presence means that we run up against a turmoil that is highly intimate (and is all the stronger the more we have been educated in the mould of the sovereign presence: as white men, adults and property owners, workers in a world without work, etc.). What arises from this turmoil, from this crumbling, is disquiet, malaise. The feeling that you do not fit in, and that nothing does any more. Malaise is the palpable manifestation of the crisis of presence.
As such, the crisis of presence opens up the possibility of a bifurcation, of a displacement, of the invention of new ways of being in and relating to the world, both personally and collectively. Social malaise can be the engine and the centre of energy for a deep transformation, towards a new political time, a new economic time, cultural, existential, and so on.
A dark period
Are we now entering a 'dark period'? Let’s call this 'dark period' one in which malaise, -this unrest, this not fitting in, this potential energy for change- is channelled by the right.
Here, the right is not merely the establishment, but rather a kind of walking paradox: anti-establishment establishment, anti-elitist elite, anti-liberal neoliberalism, etc. It is the Front National, it is Trump, it is Brexit and all the other variants of the populist right, supported by all the Érics of the world. Proscribed by the 'cultural consensus' that defined the frame of what is possible during recent decades and which is now falling to bits. Rejected because they do not keep up appearances regarding what is 'politically correct' (what is liberal-democratic): they polarize, they exaggerate and they lie shamelessly, they are aggressive and they promote hate that is sexist, xenophobic, etc.
The populist right seems to satisfy in its own way the two drives that Freud located in our unconscious: Eros and the death drive, that is, the drive for order and the drive for disorder.
Order: Here I mean the promise of restoration of the subjectivity that is in crisis. The captivating force of the promise of a job, a place in the world, of continuity with tradition, of belonging to a community, etc.
"Make America great again", exclaims Trump. "Let's take back control", say the supporters of Brexit. Let's take back the control that we once had. And with this, let's take back normality, greatness even. How? Through the exclusion, through high walls and all kinds of barriers, of that which threatens us, of that which has brought decay to our world and our bearings that provide meaning. The scapegoat can be Éric's 'Parisians', or 'refugees' or 'Mexicans' or 'gender equality' (when asked whom he would vote for, a taxi driver of African origin told a friend in the US city of Baltimore: "I can't vote, but if I could I would go for Trump. Because if Hillary wins, women will have a lot of power in this country. Men no longer matter here. What we need is a strong man").
In any of these cases, malaise is conceived of as a 'harm' that is inflicted upon us by an 'other' whom we must keep 'away' from 'us' so as to recover normality. And by doing so, we will close the wound, we will calm all this disquiet, we will put an end to the turbulence and we will recover our balance, thus reversing our 'decay'.
A desire for order and normality, a desire for protection and sovereignty. There is all this on the one hand, but not only this. There is also a desire to blow everything to bits.
- Disorder: here I mean the enjoyment from 'giving a bloody nose’ to the consensus which, with its good manners and pretty speeches, has brought us to ruin. To a left that spreads inequality, war and deportation everywhere, but always 'keeping up appearances'. To the progressive elite of the Democratic Party that lives distant and insensitive to the preoccupations of the popular classes and moreover laughs at their way of life, their tastes and their reference points. To the 'Parisians' who vote socialist, but who buy up at knockdown prices the houses and farms that the inhabitants of Aisne can no longer maintain, and who rail against those poor people who vote for the right. And so on.
In a world where everything appears tied down and well tied down, in which no gesture (from above or below) appears capable of short-circuiting the state of things and opening up a sense of the possible, Trump, Brexit and the FN channel the longing for something to happen, for seeing 'the impossible' occur, the very thing that all these politically correct voices believe "can not and must not happen", the demoniacal... Who has the most to offer? And all it takes is a vote! That is, without losing at any moment the position of spectator in the disaster film.
Debates in the progressive camp
Beyond the 'moral superiority' that gives up on asking questions about things it does not understand, labelling it as simply the resurgence of ignorance and brutality, there are two other readings of the current situation in the 'progressive' camp that deserve attention and discussion: the 'Marxist' reading and the 'populist' reading.
-The 'Marxist' reading finds the origin-cause of what is happening in the disarray of the left (and, in general, in the paradigm of class struggle). That is, social malaise, which before had organisational and cognitive structures that could provide focus from the left, has been left orphaned.
And it is the populist right that has adopted the orphan, by raising its tone of voice and calling out the discontent, offering the malaise (anger, rage, uncertainty), schemas that provide explanation, routes to channel it, and enemies against whom to turn. Through its 'cultural wars' (regarding abortion, religious beliefs, lifestyles, etc), the populist right captures 'class resentment' by redirecting it against 'the enemies of traditional values'. That is, it translates poltical-economic conflicts into moral and identitarian conflicts. 'The cultural war is a class war, but a deformed one', according to Zizek.
What does this entail, then? It means recreating the cognitive and organisational structures of class struggle, politicising the economy, speaking about material interests, rebuilding the left. However, can we reduce contemporary malaise to an economic-class question? In Éric's own story we saw how many situations, processes and factors converge; how the economic, the social, the cultural, the existential etc. are mixed together. Can we really, therefore, think of cultural matters as mere 'deceptions', 'distractions' or 'smokescreens' which prevent us from seeing what is 'essential'? Can we suppose that the racism and sexism of Trump voters are (secondary) 'ideological phenomena' that will fade once the malaise has been focused on economic and class questions?
I think the populist right is successful not because it speaks about cultural matters by covering up class-economic matters, but rather because it has something to say about it. Because it situates the political battle on the terrain of ethics, anthropology and ways of living. That is, on the ways of seeing oneself, of relating to others, of doing things, and of being in the world. What can the left propose regarding all of this? I fear it is very little: hardly the ‘ideal life of the activist', with so little reach and so little appeal, as we already know.
- The 'populist' reading (I am speaking here about progressive populism) would have it that it is not so much a matter of finding the 'real causes' of the malaise as 'constructing its meaning' and imprinting upon it a direction. Society is a structure of meaning. All that is human is made up of signs, but ‘open signs’, susceptible to being appropriated or conquered. Politics is, therefore, a fight to 'define the events'.
Let’s give a clear example: what meaning are going to give to the crisis? Is it the responsibility of 'people who have lived above their means', as our rulers say, or is it that of the oligarchical 'caste' that has looted the country? This will be decided through a 'cultural battle' over speeches and narratives whose unfolding does not depend upon the truth of which they are the bearers, but rather the communicative effectiveness of the metaphors in play.
The construction of meaning, from these premises, obeys a formal logic. That is, it is not concerned with a meaning that comes from 'experience itself', but rather from the meaning it receives from a discourse that articulates it in a certain code. As we know, the populist code, theorised by Ernesto Laclau, consists of the articulation, through 'empty signifiers' and an antagonism with an Other, of the unsatisfied demands of society, into a new historical bloc (national-popular identities that are able to represent the whole, and not just one part). In the ‘construction of hegemony’, the political fight takes place between ‘operations of meaning’ (in terms of media, discourse, aesthetics), and the winner is whoever is able to ‘codify’ reality with the greatest effectiveness. To give it meaning.
The code, then, is always there, prior to every situation, prior to every process, prior to every word and every gesture, and what is required is a combinatorial intelligence that can make the code and the signs (the given) fit together. The problem here is everything that we lose by thinking about the world (and about politics) as a semiotic battle between previous codes. We lose the materiality of the real (because what are interpreted are message-signs, the rest is of no interest and is abstracted). We lose the irreducible singularity of events and their relations (which requires of us a sensitive, rather than a combinatorial, intelligence). We lose the autonomy of processes (which can be thought-directed-codified from the outside, without there being any relation intimate with or on the inside of these processes). And finally, we lose the possiblity for creation of new meanings for social life (because time and again we get the reintroduction of 'other', the new or the unknown, in a logic of the same).
Malaise as energy of transformation
Let's return for a moment to Éric, 'stuck in a space of decay, impotent in the face of a world that no longer resists'. This immobilisation, this impotence, turn him into a victim. The malaise appears as harm, as loss. Blame for everything lies with "others". And what is desired is to "return the blow" (to see the heads of the guilty roll) in order to rebalance things and the world (presence), to return to normality.
How long can we keep up this condition of being victims? Don’t we get tired of it? We don’t change much by replacing one enemy with another: 'immigrants' for 'the caste'. We keep intact the subjectivity of victimhood which criticises but which does not undertake any change, which thinks that evil comes from another (group of person) and that if we eliminate it all will be well, but which always delegates, to the latest saviour, the task of 'restoring balance' (in many cases nostalgia for something that never existed).
We do not need criticism that comes from victimhood, from resentment, but rather a strength that is affirmative, one of transformation. A different relation, then, with our malaise. This is the most difficult thing since there is nearly nothing in our western culture that educates us for this. The normative ideal of 'sovereign presence' (control, dominion, self-sufficiency) makes us see crises as something that "shouldn't happen", or, at any rate, something which we have to get out of immediately, something that we have to 'repair' as soon as possible so that we can return to normality. A different relation with malaise entails not seeing it only as harm or loss, but also as an opening and an opportunity, an engine of change.
Can we leave immobilisation and impotence behind by using malaise itself as a lever? This is an 'energetic' approach to malaise: the energies unleashed in it are 'commutable', that is, they can be transformed into other things (into actions, into words, into "works", into other ways of life, into new sensibilities and reference points, etc.). The tears that do not get swallowed, but are instead shared and elaborated upon can metamorphose into collective actions, into processes of mutual aid, into the creativity of new images and words, into gestures of refusal and challenge. Healing does not therefore entail repair, but rather (self) transformation.
An example. It is often said that in Spain the populist right has little strength (yet) because 15M made us 'understand' that the enemy is the 1% (politicians and bankers) and not the 99% (immigrants, refugees, the poor). But here we remain in the 'semiotic' approach and the struggle over interpretations. It would be better to see the squares of 15M as places of a near 'alchemical' process through which one kind of energy (malaise lived in solitariness and impotence) turns into another (the joy of collective potency). Through being-together, through shared presence, through mutual accompaniment, through the "affective complicity among bodies', as Franco Berardi (Bifo) puts it.
We will call the kind of strength that is generated in this shared presence 'vulnerable strength'. That is: a strength that is born -paradoxically- out of weakness. From the fact of having been touched, affected, 'struck' by the world. It is not the strength of will of the sovereign presence, which stands apart from the world in order to push it in the 'right direction', but rather a strength that is affected by the world and that precisely because of this can affect it in turn. It is the strength of the affected: those of the 11M attack in 2004, of the PAH, or anyone capable of turning suffering into an energy of transformation.
Malaise, as an energy (not as an object to be mobilised, nor a sign to be interpreted) is thus the raw material of social change. But its 'politicisation', however, blows traditional forms of the political asunder.
It means keeping alive a link between the existential and the political that is as alien to the militant group (where personal problems have no place) as it is to the self-help group (where the problems of the world do not enter). It requires from us a 'knowing what to do with not knowing', because we cannot know beforehand the elaborations of meaning that contact with malaise can give rise to (there is no master-code that holds the answers in advance). It requires spaces that can take malaise in without judging it (what 'anti-capitalist' space would be able to invite Éric in, for example?). It demands of us forms of horizontal companionship: it is not a matter of 'organising' or 'interpreting' what is happening to others, but rather to make a voyage together. And much more.
Opening up a bifurcation
In the 'collapse of a world that no longer resists', the populist right promises us a return to order and normality. It is a false exit. It channels malaise by singling out scapegoats, but it provides no answer to underlying problems (the crisis of representation, the economic crisis, the ecological crisis, etc.). On the contrary: by hiding and reproducing their conditions, by turning us into victims and blocking all possibility of transformation, it prepares the way for new disasters.
Progressive populism also promises to return us to order and normality (the Welfare State, national sovereignty, etc.), by unseating 'the caste' from power and setting out 'an alternative horizon of certainties and securities'. The content is different (what kind of order, what kind of enemy), but it amounts to the same approach, interpellating the subjectivity of victimhood in need of compensation for the feeling of loss, and reinforcing the reference points in crisis (a little bit of "pride"). This option can offer us a "minimum amount of protection" if it reaches power. It is not to be sniffed at, but it is highly insufficient if we are aiming for profound change.
Between 'turning back time' (impossible) or the 'flight forward' (suicide), is there a third option? This is even more difficult: not thinking about 'exiting the crisis', but rather opening within it a bifurcation. Turning the 'civilizational crisis' into a 'civilizational mutation'. Not clinging desperately to something, but rather undertaking a voyage. Not containing the collapse, nor dreaming of reversing it in order to return to where we were, but rather opening up and sustaining new worlds here and now: other modes of relation with work, with the body, language, the earth, the city, the 'we', etc. To take advantage of the crisis, leveraging vulnerable strength.
Historically, women have proven highly capable of turning situations and places of dependence into focal points of potency: deploying vulnerable strength. In this sense, the best news about Trump's victory has been the massive marches of women that took place in the US on the day of the inauguration. Called anonymously by three 'everyday' women, relying on the capacity for contagion of social networks (where movements by affect are propagated, through anonymity and horizontality), they allow us to imagine an opposition to Trump that goes beyond mere anti-Trump reaction. An opposition that is not merely ideological or partisan, that is not merely defensive or focused on resistance (though of course there are a great many things to defend), but above all, one that is affirmative and paradigmatic, with (theoretical and practical) approaches for a civilizational mutation with regard to work, care, the family, relations, etc.
"A world can only be stopped with another world'. It is not just a question of opposing Trump, but rather the world of which Trump is the figurehead. The world of the sovereign presence, which is now in turmoil, which only knows how to react to this with violence, and which threatens to sink every one of us with it.
** The ‘energetic’ approach to malaise is largely inspired by the book ‘Libidinal Economy’ by Jean-François Lyotard.