Editorial Mute 3 #3

By Josephine Berry Slater, 15 August 2012

In this issue of Mute, a disagreement over the politics of the ‘We are the 99%’ slogan emerges in articles by Clinical Wasteman and Nick Thoburn. For Thoburn, this numerical envelope binds the earth’s majority into one unspecified category united in its exploitation by the remaining ‘1%’. Rejecting the trap of a political system which insists on the specification of demands as a means to position and ultimately neutralise dissent, Thoburn argues that the 99%, ‘at once names and cuts the social relations of exploitation, among those who feel cramped by these relations, feel their intolerable pressure.’ The relations of class are, by this account, identified but suspended in what is perhaps an act of nominal communism; the term invoking the inadequacy of class as a cipher of (political) identification and the hope of a classless future.

For the Wasteman though, the rhetoric of the 99% (which is not to be confused with the actions of occupiers or even Occupiers) allows its adopters to speak of ‘social contradiction and crisis without reference to production, labour or class’. This observation links to his critique of David Graeber’s book Debt: the First 5000 Years in which coin is disparaged for its impersonality, and impersonality written off as tainted with coin. Where Graeber sets up the personal, communal sociability of ‘human economies’ against systemic exploitation, the Wasteman insists that the two go hand in hand. Fighting against systemic exploitation by taking cover in its idealised opposite – the immediacy and mutual responsibility of community – fails to address both the personalisation of exploitation, and the nature of its global reproduction.

Elsewhere in the issue, the libertarian ideology behind Bitcoin is dissected by The Wine & Cheese Appreciation Society and Scott Lenney. The founders’ dream of creating a money system that doesn’t require banks or state institutions to guarantee its reliability is exposed for depending, nevertheless, on the violence monopolised by the state to enforce private property upon which Bitcoin runs. Once again, an argument is being made against the voluntarist and gestural escape from power relations – a means of consensual dreaming that, in the worst case, gives rise to likes of Time Bank; an ‘autonomous’ exchange system in which hipsters and creatives swap use values for sign value.

The debate certainly touches on the matter of so called symbolic protest – an overstated dichotomy, in my estimation, used to divide struggles into the effectual (non-symbolic) and the ineffectual (symbolic), while the prevailing conditions continue to darken regardless of such taxonomies, just as the reasons to tolerate them diminish. In other words, this kind of symbolic versus material political accountancy seems to sidestep the degree to which the symbolic and the material co-produce the social field. (The Diamond Jubilee as a media-Union-Jack-Tescos-workfare assemblage being just the most dumbly inescapable of recent examples).

So, what Thoburn articulates in his Deleuzian discussion of Occupy as an instance of ‘minor politics’ – a politics operated without the proper noun of a class-based or party guided movement, but rather by multiplying and connecting the ‘cramped spaces’ of privatised and scattered alienation – shouldn’t be confused with an advocacy for symbolic politics alone. Although the occupations have largely targeted the (symbolic) theatres of the public sphere and not the arteries of production (with some notable exceptions, such as the shutdown of Oakland’s port), they nevertheless put social reproduction at the heart of their activities. The feeding, sheltering and cultivation of the body doesn’t just serve as the poster image of the movement (tents, make-shift kitchens, group deliberation over all this), it also identifies this aspect of social life, normally excluded from the public and political stage, as the site of struggle as well as of production.

In her article on the treatment of gender in communisation theory, P. Valentine  considers the belated entrance of gender politics into male-dominated radical politics. While communisation theorists have sharply articulated how the production of gender, based on some women’s ability to sometimes bear children, creates an underlying and permanent social division which underpins and sustains class relations in general, there is nevertheless an inattention to the private dimension of its enforcement, namely the use of sexual violence. Developing Valentine’s argument, this obfuscation produces another outside to the legitimately political – or in biopolitical terms, another in a long series of constituent exclusions of naked life from the political.

The ways in which the personal can be grasped as political, then, seems to be an exponentially productive legacy of second wave feminism. This insistence, I think, connects the arguments made by many of the writers in this issue – from the Wasteman’s emphasis of the unbearably personal experience of the impersonal pursuit of value, to Thoburn’s discovery in Occupy of a collective exposure and deprivatisation of privatised hells, to P. Valentine’s exposure of the social function of the private ordeal of sexual violence. The maintenance of a series of breaks or distinctions, both within the mainstream and on the left, between the personal and the impersonal, the private and the public, is exposed as actively constituent of the whole system. Johannes Paul Raether, who has made this issue’s artist’s project and cover, also finds in our tenderly nursed mobile phones one of the most pernicious conduits by which ‘private’ desires mesh with off-the-shelf subjectivities, or rather, the off-the-shelf is machined into the personal.

Josephine Berry Slater
<josie AT> is Editor of Mute