Singularisation of the common

Thoughts on the crisis of the ‘movement of movements’

Coinciding with the European Social Forum in Paris in 2003, the journal DerriveApprodi published the article ‘Luoghi Comuni’ [Common Places]. Three years later, two of the co-authors, Sandro Mezzadra and Gigi Roggero, re-evaluate their arguments. Their point of departure is what they see as the obvious crisis of the ‘movement of movements’

Our point of departure has to be the crisis – which is both a paradigmatic cipher of the present, but also an ambivalent situation, genealogically open and full of potentiality. When we try to move beyond a cyclical understanding of movements, we are not aiming to exclude the crisis from the horizon of possibility of political practice. Rather, the challenge is to situate the crisis in today’s spatio-temporal coordinates. In fact, the difficulty of intervening in power relations, and the fact that the expansive possibilities of counter-summits have exhausted themselves, hasn’t stopped the development of struggles: it may be enough to remember what happened last year in France, from the revolt in the banlieues to the remarkable movement against the CPE law, to realise how materially manifold and multiple the subjective web is, that bears the critique of the current condition. We could also recall the mobilisation of students and precarious workers in the Italian universities in the autumn of 2005, or the third transnational day of action on issues of migration on 7 October 2006; and last but not least, the everything-but-linear echo that the experiences of the EuroMayDay generated, which began to invent a new common vocabulary regarding work and precarity and which were initiated by activists from the space of the global movement. What does seem to have become smaller, however, is the commonality, that – as we said – many of us thought we perceived between the revolt of Seattle 1999 and the worldwide mobilisation of 15 February 2003 against the Iraq war.

The New Challenges

So the crisis of the global movement poses a double challenge. The first aspect refers to the level on which the political practice of the movements is situated. Emerging from the opposition to neoliberal capitalism, they represented a different globalisation connected to the free circulation of people and knowledge, to social cooperation and struggles. Today we find that neoliberal politics are in a crisis, paradoxically symmetrical to that of the movements. This does not mean that the catastrophic effects of neoliberalism are over, only that such a politics can no longer solidify into a system. So the movements find themselves in an actual post-neoliberal scenario, precisely to the extent to which their political practice determined the crisis of neoliberalism and the impossibility of global government. The second aspect refers to the relationship between the new forms of movements in the last years and the radical transformations in the composition of labour-power and processes of production. There is no doubt that this relationship is rather problematic. Indeed, it is obvious, that – especially in Italy – the movements’ difficulties in intervening in the relations of production marked a critical point of their developmental possibilities. However, those who criticise the movements’ barriers with regard to the major fundamental or ‘ethical’ tasks should not ignore the fact that it is precisely this ethical dimension – of relations and language, of knowledge and affects – which is immanent to the new figures of living labour, today, when the entire spectrum of subjective resources and life itself are thrown into the labour process.

At the global level, meanwhile, the struggles of recent years – especially, although not exclusively, migrants’ struggles – have shown the strategic relevance of conflicts around the control of mobility. Here runs the line demarcating autonomy and subjection, the fine line on which the class struggle is redefined at a transnational level. Must we not – restricting ourselves to Europe – in fact view the struggles of migration and precarity primarily from this perspective? There is of course no guarantee that migrants’ struggles will converge with the struggles of the ‘precarious’ (a term that serves less and less to designate a particular segment of living labour today; it rather refers to the conditions that are currently in the process of becoming-common). Or better: the space of their convergence is not given by the ‘objective’ features that today mark the functioning of the capitalist mode of production. It has to be politically constructed and conquered. At the same time, experiences of tensions and conflicts accumulate, in different ways, within migration and precarity, signifying a historic phase in which mobility has become a decisive factor in the development of work, civil society, and forms of life. So it is not a coincidence that in the last few years it has been especially around these two topics that the most interesting forms of political practice and debate have developed in the European movements. This is how it was possible to constitute connections and linkages allowing many activists to pass through the crisis of the global movement.

The Problem of Organisation

Having said that, we don’t want to claim that there is a linear development that started in Seattle and ended in the revolt in the banlieues and against the CPE. On the contrary, we have to be able to determine the ruptures and the points at which continuity dissolves. This means productively tackling the crisis of the movements in order to articulate at a different level their processes of subjectification. Today, the strategies of the counter-summits, even if they can once again develop a rather significant dynamic of collective mobilisation (as the preparations for the anti-G8 in Heiligendamm show), can on the one hand probably not be reproduced quantitatively, while on the other they are insufficient – both in terms of their language and their forms of political action – to further develop and strengthen the conflicts around migration and precarity. At the same time, unsolved problems continue to exist within the global movement, especially the problem of forms of organisation. Even if the dissolution of the movement into thousands of tiny trickles, for example in Italy, has generated a certain identitarian reterritorialisation of different militant groups, we must not make the opposite mistake of being blinded by an aestheticised imaginary of deterritorialisation or a chimera-like nomadism that is incapable of becoming constituent power. At the same time there is the danger of merely repeating like a mantra obvious banalities: the argument that the party model, resting on a traditional relationship between vanguard and masses, has definitely run its course; or that the new form of cooperation, whether in production or in political practice, is the network.

The problem is that the network model itself is being practised today in a rather ‘weak’ form, rather than treating it as a powerful – and reproducible – organisational principle, capable of giving a political answer to the dissolution of the vanguard function in the living body of struggles. Take the example of EuroMayDay, whose importance and innovative power we have already highlighted. However, EuroMayDay did not manage to go beyond an expressive and clear suggestion regarding the question of self-representation of the ‘precariat’ on the European level. It primarily formed a kind of hub through which the explosive images were transmitted and the different parades met. In short, EuroMayDay did not manage to generate common forms of organisation and praxis, and thus become trigger, engine and catalyst of the struggles of living labour today, the principle of a new conflictuality and a political practice beyond the simultaneously manifest and unsolved crisis of representation.

Movement and Institutions

Another unsolved problem of the crisis of the global movement is the relationship of movements to institutions. In the spatio-temporal dimension of the global movement there were innovative and courageous attempts in this respect, but they seem to have disappeared with the crisis of the movement. In Italy, for example, the story, in short, went like this: a situation where parties of the institutional left acted within the movement turned into one where important people from the movement ultimately retreated to institutional positions while the movement as a whole was not able to affect the mechanisms of government at different levels. Finally, once plunged into the abyss of the crisis of representation, the retreat of the parties of the left to moderate positions, all the way to open rupture with the social movements, ended up compromising the very possibility of a new form of institutional politics – in the past it would have been called ‘reformism’. The struggles have definitely – and luckily – shattered linearity in the relationship movement-parties-institutions, this pattern in which the movements supply the cues, pose the questions to which the political system supplies the answers, thus constituting itself as representative of all levels of society. In this way a new form of politics from within the institutions can – this becomes obvious here – under no circumstances conceive of its own relationship to the movements through the traditional imaginary of ‘translation’. Put differently, its condition of possibility today is the necessary autonomy of the social movements. This precondition not only concerns the relationship of movements to the ‘formal’ institutions, it also applies to the capacity of the movements themselves to create their own institutions that – rather than stifle their growth – secure their reproduction, their development. Their capacity, to say it once more, to assert themselves within a common space.

Laboratory Latin America

So there’s an insistent and urgent problem, that of the irreducible distance between the autonomy of the movements and the representative institutions that reproduce themselves despite the crisis: recognised institutions, one might say, although they seem to have lost their value (in other words, in spite of the fact that they seem less and less capable of manufacturing consensus and securing legitimacy and effectiveness for governmental action). We therefore need a new beginning, theoretically and practically, starting from the surplus of subjectivities and the conflicts with the political system and the institutional left. For this we might have to once again change our focus and ditch the idea – both historicist and grounded in modernisation theory – that it is the role of the ‘occident’ to present to the ‘Third World’ its destiny as if in a mirror, whether with respect to capitalist development or revolutionary processes. The laboratory Latin America (as we summarily refer to the political and social processes of transformation that have recently stretched from Argentina to Venezuela, from Bolivia to Brazil) supplies not only starting points, if only situated and contradictory, for theoretical reflection, but actual elements of political models of the relationship between movements, governance and institutions. The point is not to cast an uncritical view on this laboratory, not to overlook the difficulties, contradictions and dead ends of both ‘institutional’ developments and dynamics of movement. Still, we can see here how the movements and struggles, which also in Latin America precede institutional attempts, continuously constitute and reproduce within themselves a field of possibilities. The point is that, from the insurrection in Venezuela 1989 to the revolt in Argentina 2001, from the struggles of the landless and workers in the ABC paulista in Brazil to those of the indigenous and miners in Bolivia, Latin America saw the composition of forces that in many cases managed to penetrate the interior of the political system. In Latin America there exists today within and outside of the institutions a constellation of subjectivities that, even if with a thousand contradictions, is working to disarticulate the institutions themselves and to open them for a process of emergence and consolidation of elements of counter-power. This opens the perspective of continually keeping open a constitutive basis that gives a new meaning to the institutions, anchors within them the movements’ capacity to act continuously, and enables them to assert and maintain their autonomy. The continental horizon of many of the political projects there (beginning with Bolivarismo) at the same time continuously calls into question the reference to the nation as the privileged political horizon of the development of projects of political and social change. One could say that there is no spatial reference to the nation – even if it is present in official rhetoric – but to the two levels metropolis and continent, for it is these that are the loci of political practice as such. Maybe the laboratory Latin America only supplies ‘suggestions’. Their meaning however seems to us uncontestable, their material basis are the remarkable struggles of the last years that span the whole continent.

The Deficits in Europe

Unfortunately as of yet nothing like this has happened in Europe. The movements did not manage to transform Europe into a place of conflict that would come closer to the global level. Still, the rejection of the EU constitution in France and the Netherlands prevented a Europe created ‘from above’. So from both sides it is impossible to articulate at the European level a simultaneously conflictual and innovative relationship between movements and institutions as the result of substantial deficits on both sides. This is also why it’s difficult to create a politics that would in fact – in its materiality, not only as a matter of principle – be transnational. In short: political practice today is no longer confined to the spatio-temporal dispositif of the nation-state, the struggles plunged the old top-down forms of government into the crisis, they are irrevocably gone. Today, governance – as a multilayered system of regulation, polycentric and with variable geometry – is the new terrain of conflict. On this terrain, demands are made and claims articulated: here the constitutive praxis of the autonomy of movements is developed.

From the Space of Politicisation…

Ultimately, three years on, the thesis that understands the movement as an open and complex space of politicisation seems to us both necessary and insufficient. Necessary, because it allowed us to recognise the material experience of having created a common place in the practice of the global movement – that which was incommensurable and qualitatively new in comparison to the sum of the parts of which the movement was composed. Within the movement, social subjectivities went beyond traditional organisations which, on the other hand, – at least for a short time – took on supportive roles. That was the space in which the multitude became flesh: it had been theoretically described in the long winter of the 1990s, now it became flesh and blood in the streets of Seattle and Genoa. The term multitude proves to be convincing when the point is to understand the insurrection of subjectivities at the level of the common while leaving behind both the liberal religion of the individual and the socialist cult of the collective. The ambivalent relationship of individual and state, of private and public, of citizenry and nation is finally broken. Instead there materialises a process of singularisation in the common; or rather, in the conflict there is created that ‘common place’ that does not demand the sacrifice of the exploited singularities of which living labour is composed today. On the contrary, the cooperative and innovative capacity, the practice of freedom based on equality, is multiplied. In this, the point is to investigate more closely the relationship of class and multitude to keep in focus the paths and struggles of mobile and flexible labour and not become separated from their materiality.

…to the Space of Organisation

The thesis is insufficient, however, because the movement only hinted at the radical questions and the orientation of political practice, highlighted both of these primarily negatively, while it was not able to find positive answers. To claim that the key task is no longer the conquest of state power runs the risk of remaining with a weak diagnosis that was already valid before the Zapatista insurrection renewed many of the communicative and linguistic codes of radical politics. Once again: it is the struggles that are primary, and indeed it was the movements of the 1960s and 1970s that realised that exodus away from state power. Now however, the point is to talk about a new necessity in the spatio-temporal dispositif of the movements: the transition from the space of politicisation and subjectification to the space of organisation. How can the changes form a sediment, how can power relations be affected, how can the opening and development of a constitutive space, a common, be secured? In other words, how can one employ the relations of power without ‘taking power’?

To these questions, that much is clear, we have no answers. We believe that the movements and the struggles of the next years have to discover these. In conclusion we would like to restrict ourselves to a simple proposition. Italian labour law recognises a type of contract called Lavoro a progetto – ‘project-based employment’ – a type that obviously constitutes a relationship of precarious labour. The point is now to invert this meaning, to suggestively appropriate it in order to operate with it within the crisis of representation. In other words: in those areas where the movement was able to agitate and have an impact – from migration to precarity, from questions of the welfare state to those of income – the point is to create forms of project-representation that open a space for experiments and conflicts with the institutions and the ‘official’ representative subjects (parties and unions) based on flexible relationships and a variable geometry, so that the autonomy of movements remains intact and the irreducible distance in relation to the political system is extended. The autonomy of the movements has to pass through the crisis of representation. Only then does it seem possible to us to imagine reaching beyond it to a non-state public sphere, to finally a common.

Translated from the German by Tadzio Müller and Ben Trott

Sandro Mezzadra and Gigi Roggero were editors of DerriveApprodi and co-authored the text ‘Luoghi Comuni’ (Common Places – available at Gigi is active in Uninomade and the European Precarity Web Ring project and lives in Rome. Sandro lives in Bologna and is active in migration issues with the Frassanito network. This article originally appeared in German (translated from the Italian original by Thomas Atzert) in Fantomas #10.

-The CPE is the Contrat Première Embauche, roughly Contract of First Employment, according to which young people can be fired within a two year period without explanation.

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