Susan Buck-Morss: A Commonist Ethics

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Image 5: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, November, 1989

Image 5. The Fall of the Berlin Wall, November, 1989

Image 6: Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul, 1601

Image 6. Caravaggio, <em>Conversion of Saint Paul</em>, 1601

1. “What’s happening?” (Images 5 and 6.)

The event is not a miracle that overcomes us with awe and strikes us down. It lifts us, precisely because it is accomplished by ordinary people who interrupt business as usual in order to act collectively, empowering not only those who are present, but those who, in watching, feel a tremendous surge of solidarity and sense of human togetherness – even (dare I say it?) universality. We witness the actuality of human beings joining together to overcome barriers, to initiate change. This capacity to act in common is the real possibility of a commonist ethics.

The solidarity produced in the spectator, made famous by Kant in the case of the French Revolution, has become intense in the electronic age. Different from Kant’s time, and also from Lenin’s, it was television’s live coverage of political action that tipped the balance in favor of non‐violent resistance. (Terror may be a political tool [Badiou], but it is a very blunt instrument, as historically dated, perhaps, as the hydrogen bomb)19. In recent years, in the Iranian election protests of 2009‐2010, and throughout the Jasmine revolutions of the Arab spring, the power of non‐violent protest has multiplied exponentially.

For Kant, because of the bloodiness of French revolutionary events, it was only the idea that garnered enthusiasm. On Tahrir Square it was the reality of peaceful force20 – the force of non‐violence in the face of violence, articulating a meaning of martyrdom that has universal human implications. The technological revolution of hand‐ held internet devices has exploded the potential for eye‐witness reporting of events. In live time, the reporting itself becomes a weapon of resistance. No doubt, how the new technologies are used depends on the hands that hold them. But what is remarkable is how reliable such information sharing has been. Human actors have taken responsibility for others in ways that risk their own personal safety, releasing what has all the appearance of a pent‐up desire for non‐commercial, non‐self‐interested information exchange, and trusting the international community of viewers to respond in solidarity – and they do.21 (Perhaps we are by nature socialist animals after all.)

On the first level, then, “what’s happening” is an empirical question. Approached from the mandate of a commonist ethics, answering this question requires first and foremost the full freedom of communication, by anyone who has knowledge to share, to anyone who has the desire to know. Here the reporting of independent media, the reliable collection of news, and its unfiltered, unblocked dissemination, are political projects of the highest import.22 The more dispersed the points of observation, the fuller the picture of events will be.23

Incidentally, Steve Jobs’ life is about the U.S. benefitting from immigration (his father was a Syrian Muslim, his mother was from German ancestry). While he is praised as a hero of free enterprise, his crucial political contribution is the fact that in developing the personal computer, he gave people control over the means of production of the global economy – a commonist act if there ever was one. Cell phone videos keep citizen protest and state violence in view. But Apple takes away citizen power when it designs the IPhone and IPad as a platform for profits from rent, and when these forms diminish the use‐ability of the keyboard, emphasizing instead the internet as a place of consumption, where users’ actions are under surveillance, monitored, and sold as information.

On the second level, what’s happening is an act of interpretation. To know what is happening, beyond the virtually mediated sense perception (which, when it means seeing videos of brutality toward unarmed protesters is the most unanimously and universally opposed moment in the event), is to name the action and place it in context. It is here that the difficult, often contentious work of political analysis begins, and this on the most basic level. What are we to call this moment of citizen action? Is it democracy that we are witnessing? Yes, surely. But by calling it this, we already seem to suggest the trajectory of events: Success then means founding political parties, holding elections, and declaring loyalty to a secular, nation state that plays by the pre‐ determined rules of the given world order. In other words, that which is suddenly possible in an event is to follow the lead of the self‐proclaimed democracies that are already established. But none of those steps necessarily follows from what has happened, which, for the old, self‐proclaimed democracies is a cause for alarm. The known steps, the ones they have taken, reduce the meaning of the suddenly possible to a pre‐written script. If we then revisit the question ‐ “what’s new?” ‐ the answer ends up being: not much.

But what if the truly eventful social action initiated in Tunis, Cairo and elsewhere is a previously unimagined structure of politics ‐ not the universal one‐size‐fits‐all relevance of nation‐state democracy that, even allowing for the difference of culturally pluralistic contexts, presumes an eternal verity for two‐century‐old, Euro‐American forms (which at present are responding badly to the global economic crises that their economic institutions caused), but a glimpse of global solidarity wherein national and cultural identities are suspended, and unity is the consequence, not of who you are but, rather, what you do? Let us call this a commonist practice.24 The whole process of the act of protest and its virtual dissemination is, in its non‐exclusionary, horizontal organizational forms, a brilliant manifestation of a qualitatively different, commonist ethic, pointing to the suddenly possible power of global solidarity. This is the new that reveals itself in this event, an event that is less a rupture than an opening for alternatives to the given state of things.

The idea here would be to oppose Schmitt’s and Agamben’s definition of the sovereign as he who decides in a state of emergency, turning its temporality and its agency inside‐out, and we can do this by returning to the 16th century meaning of the English word, “emergency,” as the condition of emergence.25 The state of emergency that produces a crisis for the sovereign is a liberating possibility for the sovereign’s subjects, a moment for the “emergency” of a new situation, a possibility that subjectivity itself can be transformed.

Finally, on September 28th, the New York Times brought to mainstream media the biggest political story of the year, officially acknowledging what has been happening all along (Image 7 and 8). A front page story26 put together the global pieces: The Arab Spring, India’s supporting Anna Hazare’s hunger strike, Israeli citizen pro‐justice protests, days of rioting in Athens and London, the Indignados de la Republica in Spain, as well as citizen‐sleep‐ins of the “excluded” that are on‐going in civic spaces from Tahrir Square to the Plaza del Sol, to Zuccotti Park. We need to add: the amazing bravery of citizens in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain who, with no help from NATO, persist in the face of violent repression by governments, the legitimacy of which they steadfastly refuse to recognize.

Image 7: Tunis, January 2011.

Image 7. Tunis, January 2011.

Image 8: Wall Street, NYC, September 2011

Image 8. Wall Street, NYC, September 2011

Arab Spring, European Summer, Wall Street Fall. We are witnessing a global, social movement that affirms diversity and universality, both at once. Clearly, it is radical, refusing to accept the given rules of the game. Is it a turn to the Left? Perhaps this nomenclature can no longer be used – and this fact, too, is what’s new. In our cyber‐geographic situation, Left‐turns are positioned differently on the ground. They are local in orientation and necessarily plural. This, among many things, separates global, commonist action from right‐wing populism. Where the latter marshals anger at the global disorder to support rigid ideologies of neo‐nationalism, free‐market privatization, and anti‐immigration, thereby co‐opting grass roots movements for the benefit of existing political parties, the trans‐local constellation of forces refuses to be nationally or politically contained. For “left” and “right” to make any political sense, there have to be borders – territorial borders between nations, and partisan borders within them. The new activists are unwilling to be seduced by the rhetoric of divide and rule. Are they impractically naive? Is this an event at all?

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19 Badiou on what is to be done: “… the use of terror in revolutionary circumstances or civil war does not at all mean that the leaders and militants are insane, or that they express the possibility of internal Evil. Terror is a political tool that has been in use as long as human societies have existed. It should therefore be judged as a political tool, and not submitted to infantilizing moral judgment. It should be added that there are different types of terror. Our liberal countries know how to use it perfectly” See the video of this lecture: [His paper for this conference, delivered yesterday, clarifies that violence is not a necessary condition of the communist idea.]
20 Not violence [Gewalt] but force [Kraft], as the term is used by Hegel in the Encyclopedia Logic, paragraph 136.
21 In contrast, in the Iranian case, the (Finnish‐German) corporation of Noika put political conscience aside to work with the Iranian Government in blocking the demonstrators’ internet communication.
22 The effects of government regulation have already been felt in China, where the government blocked Facebook and Twitter as detrimental to “Chinese national interest.” Google refused to comply, and moved its towers to Hong Kong, leaving the Chinese domestic search engine [Baidu] space to expand. Regulating virtually national borders produces a global trade war on information (see the work of Ying Zhu, and the film, “Google v. China”).
23 I am not impressed with the idolization of figures like Julien Paul Assange, who has gained celebrity status and perhaps other narcissistic pleasures from his simple leaking of a mass of private documents. To say that his dumping of pentagon papers sparked the Tunisian revolution is a bit like crediting Ronald Regan for the fall of the Berlin Wall. Such acts are far more likely to be politically useful as an excuse for self‐named democratic governments to implement control of the internet (which means that, regardless of his personal motives, Assange needs to be defended in this case).
24If we are to find a precedent in Hegel, it would be his comment in the Encyclopedia Logic that people are to be judged not by their motives, but by their actions: “[H]ere, too, the essential unity of inward and outward generally holds good; and hence it must be said that a person is what he does….” In this same section, he criticizes what was then called “pragmatic historiography,” referring (different from our use here of “pragmatic”) to those who debunk the whole idea that historical actors are motivated by anything other than personal vanity, foibles, etc. Hegel maintains that, as one’s inner essence appears in one’s actions, “it must be recognized that the great men willed what they did and did what they willed.” One does not need to adopt his Great Man theory of history to argue, nonetheless, that self‐conscious, collective action inspires us precisely because it evinces the human possibility of personal interests being sublated within the collective good. Indeed, critical reflection tells us that what society claims is in our self‐interest is in fact always mediated by the interests of others, and in its present, individualist form, deeply alienating. (See Hegel, Encyclopedia Logic, paragraph 140)
25 This linguistic connection does not work in German (emergence = Entstehung) but another connection does. What for the sovereign is a sudden state of emergency (in German, Notstand), is, for the subjects, a rupture of their everyday experience of existential precariousness and poverty (in German, Not). Whereas the sovereign reacts to crisis with lightening speed and dictatorial power ‐ there is no time for legal niceties ‐ the sovereign’s subjects have no need to move quickly; they demand time for change to emerge. To use Walter Benjamin’s image, perhaps revolution is not, pace Marx, the locomotive of history, but the reaching of humanity riding in that train for the emergency brake (Notbremse).
26 By Nicholas Kulish (with networked colleagues Ethan Bronner in Tel Aviv and Jim Yardley in New Delhi). Chinese protests in Lufeng is from a later article by Andrew Jacobs with ia Li contributing, 24 September, 2011.