I am really pleased to see academics tackling the problems of ineffective activism and capitalist oppression. Overcoming such large and complicated problems means trying out every tool in the tool shed. That is why Levi R. Bryant’s “McKenzie Wark: How Do You Occupy an Abstraction?” is so important. It is one of many efforts by academics to apply their reasoning to an active social movement. His recommendations are quite brazen. Bryant writes: “You want to topple the 1% and get their attention? Don’t stand in front of Wall Street and bitch at bankers and brokers, occupy a highway. Hack a satellite and shut down communications. Block a port. Erase data banks, etc. Block the arteries; block the paths that this hyperobject requires to sustain itself.” The ends that Bryant suggests are intriguing. They certainly demand bigger and better things from the Occupy movement, but the means by which he reaches these conclusions are severely problematic. I think they neglect to consider the full effects of such actions and I attribute this oversight to his choice of analytic tools: object-oriented ontologies, new materialism, and actor network theory.
At first, I was tempted to simply say, “Your Politics are Boring as Fuck” and leave it at that. A discussion of the “intra-systemic dimensions” of an “autopoietic system” sounds interesting to me but those words are not going to help build a movement, nor will they enable a single mother to feed her children. I am however, concerned about the tendency towards anti-intellectualism on the left (as well as the right), which is why these topics are worth discussing. Not because they bring about change in and of themselves, but because activists must value such debates as a breeding ground for much more pragmatic steps toward collective action. That being said, I think we as academics have a duty to make sure our debates will open space for the marginalized to be heard and seen, and our ideas are readily accessible to anyone that wants them. So when I read, “In the age of hyperobjects, we come to dwell in a world where there is no clear site of political antagonism and therefore no real sense of how and where to engage.” I facepalmed. Hard.
Last week I read this in my local newspaper:
A Troy couple charged in baby formula thefts were taken to jail and their 4-month-old baby was placed in protective care, East Greenbush police said.
The couple allegedly stole dozens of cans of infant formula on five separate occasions from the Target store on Route 4 by pushing their baby in a stroller through the store and hiding cans of formula beneath the infant in the stroller’s cargo space, police said.
There. Capitalism. I found it.
A couple stole $200 worth of baby formula and are being held on $2,500 bail. This is the site of capitalism. This is the coordinate of contemporary capitalism’s vector. It always points down to the poor and the working class. These are clear and present indicators of manipulation and greed by wealthy capitalists. Bryant’s focus on infrastructure (arteries) is partially based on Shannon Mattern’s work [Bryant’s link]. I would, however, also consider the work of Susan Leigh Star who notes that infrastructure is not just relational, it is also ecological. It is inseparable from the larger environment and means different things to different people. It should not be studied in a vacuum or out of context.
The highways that carry this formula to the Target stores; the ports that receive formula tainted with poison; and the satellites that connect activists in a global effort to bring about a better world that necessitates all of these technical systems are all part of a seamless web [dumb paywall] of technology and social relations. The arteries of infrastructure that bind the nodes of the web are certainly more complex, more abundant, and perhaps even more tightly woven than they have ever been. They are also, however, less material than ever before, and have become the lifelines of the working class like never before.
Marx warned that capitalist industry made “material relations between persons and social relations between things.” The stuff that we make is not predicated on a social relationship (I need a shirt. Will you make it for me and I’ll owe you one?) but rather, my labour is part and parcel of material objects and those social relations are bought and sold through objects. We don’t have to set up social relationships that fulfill our needs, we just go out and buy what we need after someone has built it for an unknown customer. We can see similar socio-economic relationships throughout history, even before industrialization. Graeber recounts the popular act of invading a neighboring city and issuing currency after destroying the accounting books. The invader seizing the means of production (the mines, usually) but also knows that they must destroy the existing social relations. So he burns the books, thereby destroying the written record of who owes what to whom. All of a sudden, people rely on freely exchangeable currency (which is also the only way to pay your new taxes) in order to meet their daily needs. It was also a good way of keeping a mobile army well-stocked. Don’t carry around a bunch of provisions, just carry around enough firepower that you can convince anyone to trade your gold for their stuff.
Today, we are all a conquered people. We are not self-sustaining, and due in no small part to our obsession with self-sustaining activities, we barely even know how to sustain daily life at a community-wide level. Anyone who wants to “live off the grid” is looking to develop a homestead, not a local economy. Mutual aid is not even on their radar. We no longer rely on each other, we rely on large systems like highways, Walmart, and the Internet to get what we need. These large systems are, rightfully at the heart of our national politics right now. Of course the conversation is dumb as hell: they are reduced to the soundbite “you didn’t build that” and it just goes down hill from there. We need to consider working in different scales, at different registers. When we imagine these things going away, we immediately think to sustain ourselves, not each other. If you block a highway, be prepared to offer (at least) a temporary alternative.
We must recognize that while post-industrial capitalism is full of these huge systems, they are constantly being reconstituted and enacted every day. Our economy would cease to function if everyone stopped doing their very real, very tangible, jobs. The real and present dangers of starvation, thirst, exposure and disease are always a day away. Capitalist economies organize the means by which we defend ourselves against risk, by setting prices for goods and services and then doling out cash to buy these things. That cash is unequally distributed like never before, which means the poor are much closer to the very real possibility of starvation and disease than the rich or even the middle class. Their ability to sustain life is precarious and delicate. Ergo, when something bad happens, and needed resources become scarce, it is not the rich that suffer. They can mobilize their capital to protect their communities and buy up the remaining goods. It is the poor that will suffer first and foremost. So when an Occupation decides to block a highway or stop a cell phone tower from working, they are disrupting the lives of the poor disproportionally more than the rich.
This is the sort of problem, the extreme disparity of access to the means of production and the ability to lead a healthy happy life, that object-oriented ontologies, new materialism, and actor-network theory are okay at describing, but extremely bad at explaining, and even worse at coming up with solutions. We become so focused on the connections, at the relations between human and nonhuman nodes, that we forget that a node can be a hungry child. I want Occupy movements to act in big and brash ways, but I want that to be in solidarity and at the will, of the poor. The Occupy moment’s greatest achievement and biggest failure is that it brought thousands of white, middle class Americans into a struggle that has been going on for decades and they think it is a new and temporary problem. The good news is that those privileged Americans will be introduced to concepts like systemic violence, institutional racism, and the inherent contradictions of capitalism. It means that the “national conversation” shifts. But it also means that the “temporarily embarrassed” middle class will fight to “get their country back” not recognizing that some never felt a sense of ownership in the first place. We can disrupt the infrastructure that supports capitalism, but when the cameras are trained on the protestors, and a reporter asks what this road was seized for, are we going to say “it should serve the people again” or are we going to say, “these systems were never built to benefit everyone and never can!”? I assume we’d say the former, but I think the latter is closer to the truth. These systems were made with the politics of oppression baked in. They require us to privately own expensive cars that burn fossil fuels. They require big federal governments to maintain. If we want to topple the very kind of capitalism that both Bryant and I reject, we must confront these truths. These are truths that Bryant does not confront. Thinking of capitalism as a hyperobject does not give me the tools necessary for such a discussion either. I can arrive at Bryant’s conclusion with Langdon Winner and bell hooks faster –and with the proper provision of developing a proper coalition– than actor network theory ever could. We should not dwell on the relationships of material objects with capital (although that is crucial) because we will never discuss what capital does to human relationships. ANT may tell us to block the road. But it never says for whom.
The problem with Seattle was not, as Bryant contends, “that they chose idiotic targets and simply acted on impotent rage.” It was that there was a very tenuous connection made to the violence in Seattle and the continuing violence in the Global South. That the state and corporate forces that beat back the revolutionary fervor in that moment, are the same ones that continue to inflict violence on the poor (and especially people of color) every day. The Battle of Seattle was popularly perceived as a clash with the police and nothing else. Not because it wasn’t “targeting the arteries” (and a good case can be made that it was) but because there is a carefully crafted narrative for this sort of behavior. It depicts protestors as idealistic roustabouts that would rather smash a window than vote. This is partially earned, and can just as easily be mobilized for an arterial attack as a G8 protest. We do not need any help finding mysterious and vague contact points for post-industrial capitalism. There are plenty of those, and they can be found without OOO, ANT, or New Materialism. What we need is a leftist politic that helps build coalitions and makes these struggles linked and meaningful for all concerned.