Trapped in the Net.

June 27, 2012

Yes, there is a lot of bullshit around, isn’t there? But if you dip into the past, far as human eye can see, see the vision of the world and all the bullshit there can be — it’s always been there. Perhaps in the past we were more fooled by it. As we get older, we can tell each other “The bullshit just doesn’t taste the way it used to” “Ar, I remember when you got twice as much bullshit for half the price” and so on.

Recently, in the United States, a genius named Roberto Unger who was partly responsible for President Barack Obama’s initial education at Harvard University, emerged from hibernation to make a YouTube video all about how awful Barack is and nobody should vote for him. This isn’t exactly fall-down-on-your-bum surprising stuff. Barack is awful, and nobody should vote for him. The only problem with that policy is that if you don’t vote for Barack, you will either still get him, awful as he is, or else you will get Mitt, and he is equally awful or, probably, a trifle awfuller yet. It isn’t clear, in short, how the Complaint of Unger will help at all in getting us all out of the mess of being ruled by tyrannical psychopaths armed with nuclear weapons. This possibly explains how Unger’s video failed to go viral. (Also, Unger’s Big Idea was that the Democratic Party should be forced, by losing the election, to put forward a different candidate, which would be better than Obama. Just the way, after Jimmy Carter, Clinton was better; just the way, after Clinton, Obama was better. Duh.)

However, the Obamabots sprang to arms. Apparently one commonplace critique of Obama was one too many — the terrible fear being that if anybody is allowed to get away with criticising the Divine Leader, then soon nobody will like him. (News for you, Obamabots — nobody does like him. You don’t like him. What you like in him is actually the smell of your own farts.) So a prominent Obama supporter launched a powerful attack on Unger (“Neener neener, yah boo sucks, pointy-headed radical, Ralph Nader”) which was immediately taken up by the Democratic Party Net, which in turn meant that Unger’s video got an immense audience. Possibly this will turn the tide against Obama — who knows?

But this raises the interesting question: how do you change this terrible system? How can one possibly break out of a political process which consists entirely of being granted the right to vote for contending criminal gangs on the basis of how well they frame the lies they tell? The system is disgusting to look at and even more disgusting to experience, but where is the alternative?

And so we turn to Hardt and Negri, no mean bullshit artists in themselves.

In Empire, they proved that there wasn’t really an empire. (Needless to say, it was a best-seller and hugely influential among the kind of political activist who likes to have a book next to the bed which can occasionally be dusted off and spoken about without ever being read.) In Multitude, one might expect them to prove that there isn’t a multitude, after which they can write an autobiography proving that they don’t themselves exist. (In imitation of Baudrillard’s trilogy of essays on the Gulf War.) However, as one might expect, they don’t have the courage of their lack of convictions and therefore acknowledge that there is a multitude. And their thesis is that the multitude is pissed off. This implies that these two European geniuses are almost as geniusy as the Brazilian-American blather specialist.

So — what is this pissed-off multitude to do? Applying their brains to the full, Hardt and Negri figure out that there is a difference between being oppressed and being exploited. Being oppressed means that you are being fucked around — which means that you can, once aware that you are oppressed, rise up and refuse to be fucked around, but it isn’t clear how you can do that since the oppressed are necessarily weaker than the oppressors. Being exploited, however, means that someone is making a profit out of you. Therefore, the exploited, if they perceive themselves to be oppressed (and if someone is making a profit out of you, you’re probably being oppressed) can refuse to provide the stuff which generates the profit, whatever it is.

Yeah, rrright.

Have you figured out the drawback in this, which Hardt and Negri mulled over for five years? People do not become oppressed for no reason; powerful people oppress weak people in order to exploit them. By exploiting people, oppressors become more powerful relative to the oppressed and exploited. Therefore, if the oppressed and exploited try to refuse to be exploited, the oppressors and exploiters can (and have a massive incentive to) ramp up the oppression to the point at which being exploited becomes a more bearable deal. This is what has happened everywhere in the world, and everybody seems to know about it except Hardt and Negri.

Hardt and Negri have noticed the “revolution in military affairs” which was quite big about five years before they wrote their book. The purpose of the “revolution in military affairs” is to be able to deliver weapons with great accuracy, thus making it possible to kill any specific enemy one wishes without suffering casualties. The apex of this revolution is Obama’s policy of murdering political enemies with missiles carried by robot aeroplanes.

There are two ways of dealing with this revolution: one is to develop sophisticated equipment to disrupt or intercept those precision-delivered weapons, and the other — far cheaper — is to make it impossible to find a suitable target for such weapons. For instance, Israel has developed an anti-missile system called “Iron Dome”, under which the primitive, firework-like rockets used by some of the Palestinians imprisoned in the Gaza concentration camp to “bombard” a small area of Israel can be shot down. The Palestinian rockets cost an insignificant amount of money to make in a garage workshop, and the labour is free. The Israeli anti-missile-missiles cost hundreds of thousands of rands each and require skilled labour and precision machine-tools to construct. Therefore, every time the Palestinians fire a missile which activates the “Iron Dome” system, the Palestinians win.

Meanwhile, if the oppressor doesn’t know whom to kill, if there is no target for the guided bomb, then the system breaks down as a system of oppression. Decentralising the resistance (which dates back to very early days — the cell system of organisation dates back at least to the nineteenth century) facilitates this. So the Americans have come up with concepts like “netwar” and “asymmetrical warfare”, under which those pestiferous people who dare to resist their activities are insufficiently organised to be easily stomped flat, and also have the temerity to be weaker and poorer than their murderers, thus unfairly making the murderers look like bullying fat-cats. This is jargon, of course, and it appears to indicate that the US has no more idea of how to really deal with the problem, than they had in trying to deal with exactly the same problem in the Philippines early in the twentieth century.

Hardt and Negri, however, are enthralled by the idea, because it serves their goal of campaigning against “vanguard parties”, to which they oppose the nebulous postmodern techno-jargon of the “swarm”. They don’t like vanguard parties — that is, parties which claim to have interpreted political conditions more thoroughly than the general public and therefore are out there in front of everybody else in the general march towards a better life for all.

To be more precise, they don’t like vanguard parties which, when in power, suppress other parties on the basis that the other parties are regressive (trying to bring a worse life for all) or, albeit nominally progressive, are in league with regressive forces. Like the Bolsheviks in 1918-9, suppressing the right-wing and left-wing opposition parties. One must agree with Hardt and Negri that this is very bad behaviour on the part of the Bolsheviks. Admittedly,  the right-wing parties were actively at war with the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, the left-wing opposition — the Mensheviks and Left Social-Revolutionaries — were either conniving with the right-wing parties or collaborating with British and French Military Intelligence, whose forces had invaded Russia, and whose chief agent Bruce Lockhart seems to have aided the murder plot against Lenin which ultimately brought Stalin to power after Lenin’s subsequent stroke. What all this seems to mean is that “vanguard parties” may seize absolute power, but that this isn’t a necessary criterion for being a vanguard party, but Hardt and Negri wish to believe this, and so does Noam Chomsky, and who is to disagree with them?

What they prefer is the revolutionary project which appeared in the 1950s. Under this one, instead of having a vanguard party, you have a revolutionary army up in the hills which fights for freedom. Astute observers may find something strange about the idea that an army is less disciplined than a political party. Those with a powerful memory for history will possibly also recall that the 1960s and 1970s were a massive era of revolutionary parties which had armies fighting for freedom, and that the only successes of this period were those of parties. Those who tried to operate with an army alone, like Guevara, or who tried to collapse party into army like the Red Brigades (not that they were an army in any meaningful sense of the word) failed so dismally that they can only be called an attempt at revolution courtesy of the right-wing revisionist press, which used them all as a justification for repressive activity. History therefore decisively refutes Hardt and Negri, for the successful pattern was the same one which Lenin and Trotsky had deployed, while the failed one was the one which Hardt and Negri eulogise.

They continue this down to the South African example, which they claim as an example of a dispersed struggle which was not based in one party or one army. Actually it was a highly focussed struggle which was based in the African National Congress, a fact which they have to jettison (which is not difficult, since they are largely relying on anti-ANC sources which falsify South African history). In any case, the consequence of the South African example, where the vanguard party has been abandoned and right-wing factions and organisations have been allowed free rein, does not seem an example which should inspire confident imitation.

Their final focus, however, is on a third level, which they identify with the EZLN in Mexico. This political organisation, led by the anonymous but charismatic “Subcomandante Marcos” enjoyed some brief attention in southern Mexico in the mid-1990s. Hardt and Negri, on the basis of the myth of the Zapatistas rather than the reality of the organisation on the ground, pretend that this was a leaderless party, and therefore suggest that this should be seen as a swarm of unled people all going in the same direction. They then cite a few highly centralised anarchist organisations as other examples, simply because these organisations are so opaque that nobody on the outside understands their hierarchy. They then suggest that this is the organisation for the future.

Yeah, right. The “multitude”, the “swarm”, who will have no ideology and no leaders and no organisation, but will somehow all go in the same direction through some kind of political tropism which creates the “net”. This is an extraordinarily asinine notion. Obviously it is possible that a vast multitude might come to a similar decision at the same time — this guy has got to go! — as happened in Russia in 1917 and Iran in 1978. But once the guy was gone, the politicians moved in to seize control in one form or another. Hardt and Negri are basically offering a new version of the ur-Marxist idea that history is on our side, and therefore we don’t have to make a revolution because history will do it for us. The multitude will determine everything. Presumably, on the basis of what they read in the papers and see on TV.

In fact, this is precisely what is happening now; the multitude are indeed determining everything, at the behest of Rupert Murdoch and Barack Obama. So, in the end, Hardt and Negri are counter-revolutionaries attempting to mislead us into quiescence under the pretense of offering something new. Does this mean that the bullshit of Multitude is even better at bullshitting than the bullshit of Empire was? Or is it just that nobody pays any attention to gibbering faux-leftist balderdash any more?