Control and Subversion in the 21st Century

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Book: Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century, Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson & Vassilis Tsianos. London: Pluto Press, (2008)

(an important book, because it sees change as a process rather than event, and focuses on the role of exodus -out of a failing system - in social change)



"This book is about social transformation; it proposes a processual vision of change. We want to move away from thinking about change as primarily effected through events. To focus on the role of events is to foreground particular moments when a set of material, social and imaginary ruptures come together and produce a break in the fl ow of history – a new truth. Much of the twentieth century’s political thinking casts revolt and revolution as the most central events in creating social change. But the (left’s) fixation on events cannot nurture the productive energy required to challenge the formation of contemporary modes of control in Global North Atlantic societies.

An event is never in the present; it can only be designated as an event in retrospect or anticipated as a future possibility. To pin our hopes on events is a nominalist move which draws on the masculinist luxury of having the power both to name things and to wait about for salvation. Because events are never in the present, if we highlight their role in social change we do so at the expense of considering the potence of the present that is made of people’s everyday practices: the practices employed to navigate daily life and to sustain relations, the practices which are at the heart of social transformation long before we are able to name it as such. This book is about such fugitive occurrences rather than the epiphany of events. Social transformation, we argue, is not about cultivating faith in the change to come, it is about honing our senses so that we can perceive the processes which create change in ordinary life. Social transformation is not about reason and belief, it is about perception and hope. It is not about the production of subjects, but about the making of life. It is not about subjectivity, it is about experience.

In the following pages, we look for social change in seemingly insignificant occurrences of life: refusing to subscribe to a clichéd account of one’s life story; sustaining the capacity to work in insecure and highly precarious conditions by developing informal social networks on which one can rely; or living as an illegal migrant below the radar of surveillance. These everyday experiences are commonly neglected in accounts of social and political transformation. This might be partly because they neither refer to a grand narrative of social change nor are they identifiable elements of broader, unified social movements. However, this book presents the argument that such imperceptible moments of social life are the starting point of contemporary forces of change.

But what makes some everyday occurrences transformative and many others not? Transformative processes change the conditions of social existence by paving the way for new transformations (rather than by creating fixed identifiable things or identities). We can trace social change in experiences that point towards an exit from a given organisation of social life without ever intending to create an event.

This is why we talk about ways of escaping. The thesis of the book is that people escape: only after control tries to recapture escape routes can we speak of ‘escape from’. Prior to its regulation, escape is primarily imperceptible. We argue that these moments where people subvert their existing situations without naming their practice (or having it named) as subversion are the most crucial for understanding social transformation. These imperceptible moments trigger social transformation, trigger shifts which would have appeared impossible if described from the perspective of the existing situation. You can never really know exactly when people will engage in acts of escape.

The art of escape appears magical, but it is the mundane, hard and sometimes painful everyday practices that enable people to craft situations that seem unimaginable when viewed through the lens of the constraints of the present. The account we give of social transformation does not entail cultivating faith in the event to come, rather it involves cultivating faith in the elasticity and magic of the present. Another world is here.

Escape routes are transformative because they confront control with something which cannot be ignored. A system of power must try to control and reappropriate acts of escape. Thus, the measure of escape is not whether it avoids capture; virtually all trajectories of escape will, at some point, be redirected towards control. We are trained to think that the end product of political struggle is all about a transformative end point, a revolt, a strike, a successfully built up organisation, a revolution. However, this perspective neglects the most important question of all: How does social transformation begin? Addressing this question demands that we cultivate the sensibility to perceive moments when things do not yet have a name.

There is nothing heroic about escape. It usually begins with an initial refusal to subscribe to some aspects of the social order that seem to be inescapable and indispensable for governing the practicalities of life. In other words, the very first moment of subversion is the detachment from what may seem essential for holding a situation together and for making sense of that situation. Escape is a mode of social change that is simultaneously elusive and forceful enough to challenge the present configuration of control.


In this book we introduce escape not because we are looking for either a principle behind people’s actions or the hidden principle of historical change. Rather, focusing on escape allows us to imagine, see and interrogate those ordinary moments when people’s actions put processes in motion, processes which are effective in confronting the social order with a force of change that cannot be avoided, silenced, neglected, erased. In retrospect, such moments can be explained in many different theoretical ways: as resistance, revolt, refusal, revolution, as an event. Rather than draw on these concepts inherited from twentieth-century political theory and practice, attuning ourselves to escape allows us to work with transformation that is more pertinent to process than to event, to skilfullness than to anticipation, to togetherness than to sublimation, to imagination than to logic, to joy than to seriousness.

Joy is crucial to this book. The joy of escape defies seriousness and this, as we try to show, is the most crucial condition for revealing truth. Paraphrasing Bakhtin’s (1984, p. 285) reading of Rabelais’ concept of truth, we could say that behind the sanctimonious seriousness of many exalted and offi cial concepts of social transformation of the traditional left (and beyond) we find barking instead of acting and laughing. Rather than succumbing to barking out the fi delity to the coming event or to the new truth we prefer to enjoy the ways in which truth erupts out of the present. The emergence of ‘a truth inwardly free, gay and materialistic’ is made possible by the kind of laughter and hilarity that pervades the atmosphere of the carnival banquet (Bakhtin 1984, p. 285; see also pp. 94ff.). And it is the collective joy of eating and drinking in a ‘banquet for all the world’ (Bakhtin 1984, p. 278) which opens the possibility to partake in the world instead of being devoured by it. The laughter and joy of those who partake in the world defies seriousness, disperses fear, liberates the word and the body and reveals a truth escaping the injustices of the present. This laughter is the prime mover of escape. Escape is joyful. This is not an intellectual argument we are advancing in order to resist the ubiquitous melancholy and mourning of the left. Rather we are pointing to an embodied political practice which contests a dominant understanding of social change as the result of a response to suffering. Casting action as the force of pain is a terribly Eurocentric view. It demands that we become, or worse wheel in, a victim whose capacity to act is reduced to a mere response to pain. With Oswald de Andrade we prefer to talk about the pleasure of anthropophagy (Andrade, 1990, p. 51). Joyfully devouring the sacred enemy in order to create a new body and new conditions for seeing and acting in the world, anthropophagy triggers processes of transformation which simultaneously act at the heart of and escape the practices underpinning modernity and postmodernity in Global North Atlantic societies. Joy marks the routes of social transformation.

Joy is the ultimate proof."

Postliberal Sovereignty: Network and Grid

The BMW plant in Leipzig Germany started production on 1 May 2005. In the medium term, the plant will produce up to 650 vehicles per day and has the capacity to manage the planned growth in sales of up to 1.4 million vehicles per year. According to the architect, Zaha Hadid, the building enables innovative working-time models and operating times of 60 to 140 hours per week, and because of this the plant can react quickly to specific changes in the market.

The BMW plant is a strange building. You don’t really know if it is modern or postmodern, Fordist or post-Fordist; it is a mixture of Piranesi’s multi-level scaled structure and the breathing porosity of Libeskind’s construction. It is simultaneously a network and a grid. Despite the similarities to both Piranesi’s and Libeskind’s visions, the BMW plant does not represent a totality, as in Piranesi’s hermetic environment, nor does it reproduce the transversal design of Libeskind’s garden. The BMW plant is a highly contingent and closed structure, inherently fl uid and simultaneously inherently stratifi ed. From the worker on the production line to the managers, all share the same space; they seem to belong to the same group of people.

In fact, social stratification in the form of classes or subjectivities is reversed here and reincorporated into a virtual but effective matrix of a new commonality, into a vertical aggregate. And this vertical aggregate attains its strength precisely by placing all actors on a common horizontal corridor of action. The BMW plant is an interactive order, neither open nor closed, but open as soon as it incorporates the actors necessary for its functioning, and closed as soon as it can protect and sustain its functionality. The plant is not maintained by its exclusivity nor by an internally generated authenticity, but rather by a fluid belonging of different independent trajectories to an effective system of production. It is an aggressive structure, opposing everything that sets limits to its own internal interests or tries to infuse it with impurity. The BMW plant reacts aggressively to the fear of viruses, it is aseptic, clean, pragmatic: Western oblivion at the highest level; immunity is its major concern.

We use this image as the paradigmatic figure for the emergence of a new mode of political power, postliberal sovereignty, which breeds in the core of the dominant transnational sovereignty. Postliberal sovereignty is neither a substitute, nor an alternative, nor the next stage of transnational sovereignty. Transnationalism is an integral component of postliberal sovereignty. The concept of postliberal sovereignty allows us to recognise the formation of emerging hegemonic projects which make up the space of transnationalism in the beginning of the twenty-first century (Greven and Pauly, 2000). The commonality between transnationalism and postliberal sovereignty is that both deal with the aporias of constitutionalism, that is, they both attempt to solve, on a global level, the national crisis of the double-R axiom. The difference between them is that transnationalism is inherently apolitical; it pretends to solve the problem on a simply horizontal level, while postliberal sovereignty inserts hegemonic political claims into the global horizontal space. Transnational sovereignty presents a solution for the problem of rights and representation by adding dynamism to the borders of national sovereignty. Historically borders were lines of demarcation between national sovereignties. Transnationalism implodes these demarcation lines and reinterpellates, on a global scale, the participating actors of national sovereignty in many different ways (Brenner, 2004). Transnational sovereignty merges national spaces and their actors with other international players into a unified horizontal plane by asserting arbitrariness in the way borders are established (Castells, 1997). Borders are no longer by definition the limits between national sovereignties; rather – as discussed in Section IV – they are erected wherever there is a need to solve and to organise social space and political governance (Larner and Walters, 2004; Rigo, 2005). Consider, for example, the emergence of the new virtual European borders in North Africa – borders erected to control the flow of migration into Europe by maintaining aspiring migrants in externalised camps or internal borders erected in the heart of metropolises of Global North Atlantic countries. Making and remaking borders in a contingent way was the strategy transnationalism deployed to solve the crisis of the double-R axiom.

Postliberalism appropriates this solution – and in this sense postliberalism is also the heir to the crisis of sovereignty and relies on the same organisational substratum as transnationalism. But postliberalism attempts to initiate a strategic rearrangement of the transnationalist horizontal and networked organisation of space: in the midst of an even plane of global action it establishes vertical aggregates of power. The break occurs when postliberalism leaves nationalist imperialist geopolitics behind irrevocably. Instead it uses the global transnational space to install dominant hegemonic alliances which cannot be simply reduced to the imperialist geopolitics of entire nation states.

Rather these new postliberal aggregates reconnect different segments of nation states and different social actors who have emerged in the phase of transnational governance into new condensations of power. Although postliberal sovereignty feeds on the horizontal transnational order of power, it introduces a new hegemonic strategy with a project of global corporativism. Postliberalism involves the verticalisation of horizontal transnational geopolitics. Transnationalism is the legal algorithm of post-Fordist, neoliberal globalisation. And in this sense, transnationalism is hegemonic on a global scale. What postliberal sovereignty does now is to hegemonise hegemony, that is, to insert and realise conflict in the hegemonic project of transnational neoliberalism. In the years from 1970 to 2000, we used to think of the neoliberal globalisation which transnational governance made possible as a more or less unifi ed project of domination on a planetary scale (Held, 1995; Urbinati, 2003). However, the concept of postliberal sovereignty is an attempt to contest this position and to trace the internal conflicts and ambivalences of this project.

The globalisation of transnational neoliberalism can no longer be characterised as a bloc of global power; this notion does not help us to understand or to gain any purchase on the political constitution of the present. Although it is the hegemonic form of geopolitics today, the globalisation of transnational neoliberalism is not unified. Rather it contains conflicting alliances of diverse interests which try to dominate the process of transnational neoliberal globalisation. In this sense, postliberal vertical aggregates attempt to appropriate the space which was created by transnational governance and in so doing they conflict with other vertical aggregates attempting to do the same. The concept of postliberal sovereignty gives us the possibility to move beyond a simplistic understanding of globalisation as a matter of dominant neoliberal forces being opposed by the rest of the world. Rather global domination is itself a diverse and conflicted process. The conflict emerges through the formation of vertical aggregates which try to seize more power with the global unfurling of transnational neoliberalism.

The Making of Vertical Aggregates

The figure of the BMW plant in Leipzig illustrates this verticalisation of horizontal relations and terrains. The social is not only constituted out of horizontal layers of different actors, whether these be social classes, interest groups, or social subjectivities. The social consists of vertical aggregates containing and intermingling segments of social classes, groups or subjectivities into large formations which coalesce along an imagined commonality. These social bodies condense economic, technoscientific, political and cultural power and control decision-making processes. They are unlike the social structures we have known up to this moment. There are no clearcut social institutions, social classes or associations of civil society interacting in the making of polity. There are no people (Volk) in the BMW plant (Figure 9). We rather observe the emergence of legitimate players consisting of many different bits of all these various actors and which together constitute social bodies vertically traversing society and its institutions.

There is nothing left over from the base–superstructure formation of political power. There is nothing left over from the politics of difference and subjectification. Neither ideology, nor discourse. The politics of difference of the 1980s and 1990s intervenes in the given conditions of representation, renegotiating and rearticulating them under the imperative that resistance is possible. Cultural politics, post-feminist positions, queer mainstreaming, radical democratic approaches – all have revealed that the given systems of representation generate the effacement of certain differences (the migrant, the queer, the subaltern, the excluded) and they have introduced a new subversive strategy of visibility. But these times are over. The crisis of multiculturalism, the difficulties of aligning queer politics with other social movements, the occupation of postfeminist positions by neo-essentialist understandings of what women are, the obsession of radical democratic approaches with the question of formal rights, all these mark a phase of stagnation of subversive politics and its absorption into the vortex of neoliberal thinking. The politics of difference fails to grasp how actors participating in vertical aggregates are detached from their original indexes. These actors do not refer to themselves as members of collective interest formations (social class, ethnicity, gender, etc.). Their self-understanding and their agency are not derived from what they are but from their position in particular vertical aggregates. For instance, in Chapter 8 we discuss the vertical alignment of the transnational pharmaceutical company, Baxter, and the Indonesian Ministry of Health. Because this alignment arose in response to the seeming acceptance of unequal access to vaccines for pandemic influenza on the part of those most deeply involved in coordinating global preparedness for a pandemic, there has been considerable sympathy for Indonesia’s move from countries of the South. However, Indonesia does not represent the collective interests of these countries in their alliance with Baxter; in fact the alliance excludes them, and potentially poses a risk to the health of those living in countries which cannot pay for vaccines.

Vertical aggregates are by no means solidified, unchangeable, closed systems. They are rather interactional entities, neither open nor closed. They are open to the extent that they can assimilate the actors necessary for their functioning and the retention of their power, and closed as much as is necessary to protect their existence. In the previous chapter we identified the network as the functional principle of transnational sovereignty. The figure of a network promises unlimited potential for connectedness. But the promise of the vertical aggregate lies more in its becoming and holding together a series of different actors, akin to the pluripotence of stem cells which might develop into a valued body part or into a cancerous growth (Waldby and Mitchell, 2006). Stem cells entail the possibility of transforming into almost any other cell, but engage in this transformation by creating ‘colonies’ made of different kinds of cells, colonies which close their porous boundaries, and by creating a tight division between their becoming and all that is excluded by it (Figure 10).

The cultures of assemblages of stem cells serve as a paradigmatic figure of how artifi cial postliberal aggregates arise to be able to respond to the ad hoc needs of a certain situation. If the network was the emblematic image of the political organisation around the turn of the new millennium, cultures of stem cell lines now become the image of political organisation as we move towards postliberalism.

Postliberal aggregates carry neither the modern fetish of wholeness, nor the postmodern obsession with partiality. It is not so much that the state disappears or that transnational processes and institutions take control. We know that states play much harder now than at many other times in history. And we also know that patriotisms, fundamentalisms, new nationalisms play a crucial role in the makeup of current geopolitics. The difference is that the state ceases to act as representing itself, it splits itself, and certain parts of the state participate in broader social aggregates. It participates by articulating interests, wills and political views and by linking with many different, selected segments of social classes, social groups, associations of civil society (such as trade unions, customers organisations, pressure groups), local business companies, transnational companies, non-governmental organisations, international governments, transnational organisations. These aggregates use the cultural politics of patriotism, nationalism and fundamentalism in an arbitrary way, not because these politics refer to a nationalist ideology, but because they help to maintain the coherence of the aggregate. The main objective of postliberal sovereignty is to articulate, in a positive way, a not-yet-represented commonality of the actors participating in a postliberal aggregate.

The emergence of vertical aggregates of this kind constitutes a renewed form of corporativism, a form which attempts to get rid of totalitarian ideas and of any commitment to a liberal democratic organisation. Here we do not mean corporativism as the domination of local or multinational companies and economic trusts in decision making. Rather, we use it in the Gramscian sense, to denote a form of social organisation which attempts to resolve the crisis of state power and its inability to govern effectively by developing new modes of regulating social institutions (Gramsci, 1991; Sternhell, Sznajder and Asheri, 1994). Such neo-corporate social regulation cuts across established social interests vertically aligning segments of distinct class, interest and social groups with each other.

This mode of organisation can be illustrated by comparing how neoliberal and postliberal modes of social regulation function.

Neoliberalism responded to the nation state’s inability to deliver on its promises of rights and representation through the centralising powers of the state, by introducing the need for actors to demonstrate responsibility before they could make claims on the double-R axiom (Bayertz, 1995). The neoliberal imperative to demonstrate responsibility works to break the coherence of distinct social groups or class: individuals’ attempts to claim rights are dissociated from their belonging to segments of a particular group or class. Neoliberalism can be understood as a doctrine of governance that opposes protectionism, interventionism and central economic planning in the modern state, and rehabilitates the individual as the historic subject of the modern era, combating conservative preference for traditional collectives or socialist humanist visions (Wallerstein, 1995). Milton Friedman summarised it as early as 1962, saying that ‘a liberal is fundamentally fearful of concentrated power’ (Friedman, 1962).

In contrast, postliberalism takes distance from this doctrine. In postliberal conditions neither the centralised government of the state nor the individualising principle of neoliberalism are seen as effective ways to organise polity. The principal figure of postliberalism is neither state nor individual; rather, it is new aggregates of power which articulate and incorporate particular segments of the state together with certain individuals or segments of social groups. Isaiah Berlin’s (1958) two concepts of liberty are turned upside down and fi nally neutralised in postliberal conditions with the emergence of a new concept of political organisation which neither wants to minimise state intervention nor to maximise individual selfdetermination.

This is the reason why we call the current condition postliberal. It moves beyond the liberal principle of the individual and beyond any form of political organisation which finally sees state institutions as the guarantors of individual freedom. Hence, in the scheme of postliberal power we have neither state supremacy and omnipotence (as in national sovereignty) nor self-governed actors (as in transnational sovereignty). How have we come to this? How has postliberalism evolved out of these two forms of political order? As the constitutionalist structure of modern national sovereignty retreats, the practices of neoliberal governments create the conditions for the emergence of transnational governance. In transnational neoliberal conditions, connecting and realigning particular segments of social groups on a horizontal plane on the basis of common global normative principles becomes the predominant mode of governance (Commission of the European Communities, 2001; Rosenau and Czempiel, 1992; Castells, 1997). In transnational sovereignty, governance signifies the erosion of the boundaries which delineate individual self-governed actors as well as the limits of constitutionalism. Governance is post-constitutionalist, that is, in a scene populated by many different self-governing actors, governance is the way to achieve a common mode of functioning. In other words, global action and the coordination of multiple self-governed actors is not made possible by common observation or by following some predefined or abstract principles imposed by a central authority. (Such organisational processes pertain to government in conditions of national sovereignty.) Rather, in transnational sovereignty, governance involves regulating the search for and allocation of normative principles and this occurs in the absence of any predefined authority which holds on to some foundational principles. These normative principles are developed ad hoc through intensive processes of negotiation between participating self-governing actors. It is through the process of governance that self-governing actors are able to co-exist and operate effectively in conditions of transnational sovereignty. Thus, we can now sketch two modi of polity: first, national sovereignty, which operates through the process: state – foundational principles – government; second, transnational sovereignty, which operates through the process: self-governing actors in relation to state and non-state institutions – ad hoc normative principles – governance. With the emergence of postliberal sovereignty there is no longer

either a centralised statist apparatus or a fl uid network of negotiation and regulation. In other words, neither government nor governance. The project of postliberal sovereignty attacks the search for ad hoc normative principles. For example, zones of exception in which human rights are deactivated or are only partially extended are sanctioned or created without prior negotiation; wars (Afghanistan, Iraq) are fought despite the fact that they are not grounded in a set of normative principles which legitimise them (here, the second Gulf War is an emblematic event of a postliberal vertical aggregate of power). Such attacks serve to install hegemonic claims into the geopolitics of governance. In fact vertical aggregates bypass governance. They interrupt the process of governance and instead they impose a series of actions whose sole legitimisation is the simple fact that vertical aggregates have the power to do them. Consider, for instance, how the ‘coalition of the willing’, refusing the UN, split transnational space (incorporating some actors, such as Halliburton and Blackwater) and split nations (with military forces being sent to Iraq despite the strong opposition of the majority of people they are supposed to represent). Not only does postliberalism interrupt the horizontality of power by installing vertical aggregates at the horizontal level, as we described earlier. It also renounces the liberal foundational principles of polity and strives to install a set of eclectic principles whose only aim is to solidify the internal coherence and alliances of the vertical aggregate.

Of course this leads to paradoxical political configurations which, if we were operating in conditions of national or transnational sovereignty, would result in non-government: consider for example the mix of economic liberalism and neo-conservatism in the United States, or the new white supremacist politics of Howard’s Australia, the blend of democracy and Western fundamentalism in European societies, etc. Vertical aggregates close down the horizontal, ‘open’ social spaces occupied by self-governing actors involved in transnational governance, and consolidate new hegemonic modalities of power which come to colonise these spaces. Postliberalism employs a strategic selectivity as it works on the level of horizontal geopolitics installing dominance in the, by definition, unstable and decentralised global space of geopolitical operations. At the beginning of the twenty-fi rst century and after more than 30 years of neoliberal transnational sovereignty, postliberalism changes the political constitution of the present. This shift occurs in tandem with a second, the radical reorganisation of global social actors and of the way they enter into and sustain global postliberal vertical alliances. We want to show this in two examples, one from Europe and one from the United States.

Postliberal Sovereignty and the Question of People in Europe

The 2005 debates about the European constitution refl ected some of the main features of the crisis of constitutionalism. These debates make apparent the need for a post-constitutional solution to the tension between national sovereignty, on the one hand, and transnational governance of the European space as a whole, on the other. To a certain extent both the failure of the 2005 referenda for the European constitution (which were supposed to establish for the fi rst time a post-constitutional Europe) in France and in the Netherlands, and the resulting Euro-scepticism, address an issue which has been circulating in the dispute about the future of Europe for many years, namely if there is a state in Europe (Balibar, 2004b). A peculiar alliance of left and right souverainistes celebrates this failure, seeing in it the reappearance of the European people of different nations on the political scene. They proclaim that this reappearance answers two questions. Firstly, it addresses the absence of representation of European people in the constitutional initiatives, and, secondly, it responds to the neoliberal support of this constitution. But the invention of ‘European people’ is just another European myth. We argue that the reason for the failure of the referenda is not the result of the inherent weakness of post-constitutionalism to revitalise the double-R axiom, as souverainistes assert. There are no people (Volk) in Europe, and it is good that it is so. And there are no people because Europe can be neither a state nor a confederation of states (Beck and Grande, 2004; Nicolaïdis and Howse, 2001).

Modern national sovereignty is finished in Europe and transnational sovereignty cannot yet solve the problem of a common European vision. It is true that transnational sovereignty and governance created the ground for a common European space. And here we know that this transnational space is by definition a hegemonic project (Chakrabarty, 2000; Mezzadra, 2005). But this horizontal governmental space of European unification has not answered the question of a unified hegemonic European bloc on a global scale – the territory of the debate is left confused. So, even people who supported the ‘No’ to the constitution cannot hide their peculiar form of Eurocentric euphoria that actively calls for a new planetary hegemonic role for Europe:

To put it bluntly, do we want to live in a world in which the only choice is between the American civilisation and the emerging Chinese authoritarian– capitalist one? If the answer is no then the only alternative is Europe. The third world cannot generate a strong enough resistance to the ideology of the American dream. In the present world constellation, it is only Europe that can do it. (Žižek, 2005a)

The moment when postliberal sovereignty could emerge never crystallised: without a firm strategy for a hegemonic Europe the referenda could not convey a common global vision for Europe. Such a strategy is needed to transform current transnational Europe into a global postliberal project and to instigate a European attempt to hegemonise the hegemony of the globalised transnational space.

Instead, the referenda were used by different political forces in order to articulate their opposition to the ongoing transnationalisation of European institutions. For example, many traditional left social movements and organisations, such as national and European trade unions, the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions to Aid Citizens (ATTAC), and most of the left parties represented in the European parliament, that is the Confederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), used the internal political contradictions in single nation states, especially in France and the Netherlands, to oppose the ratification of the proposed EU constitution. Fear was the dominant element circulating in the public debates leading to the European referenda. This was mobilised by the phantasms of an omnipotent neoliberal hegemony, of a Europe with permeable borders, of a multiculturalism out of control.

However, there is nothing subversive about fear, it only solidifies a transcendent relation between people and the polity by reactivating the double-R axiom. It encapsulates people within the national territory and confines them to its institutions of representation. Fear excludes everything which threatens this transcendent mediation between people and nation. That is, it excludes all these political actors who are external to national sovereignty, but are nevertheless crucial players in a transnational Europe. The EU constitution was not rejected because this was either an effective means to oppose neoliberal policies (as if European national governments are not enforcing such policies) or a means to intervene in the freedom of movement in Europe (as if the Schengen Agreement is not in force). It was rejected because of the fear of new social actors entering the terrain of local national politics: other groups and communities of Europe (remember the Polish plumber in Aix en Provence), the new Muslim citizens of Europe (remember the painful negotiations between the EU and Turkey), illegal migrants (remember the Mediterranean Euro- African space).

The target of the ‘No’ campaign was to prevent the ongoing transnationalisation of European states. But this proved to be a weak strategy, because blocking the ratification of the European constitution did not question the process of transnationalisation at all. The left social movements and organisations which participated in the ‘No’ campaign had neither the power nor the will to effectively oppose a series of major policies which have already made transnational governance in Europe a reality; such as the Schengen Agreement for the creation of common migration, border and surveillance policies across Europe, the Bologna process for the creation of the European higher education area, the Lisbon Agenda for innovating Europe’s economy, etc.

The politics of fear simultaneously dissects the European transnational space into nationally regulated segments and negates the postcolonial constitution of this one Europe. As Balibar (2004a) notes, the denial of the postcolonial condition of Europe disrupts any possibility for understanding the meaning of otherness and the problem with the ongoing make-up of European citizenship today (Balibar, 2004a, p. 46). Although the failure of the referenda did not have any serious effect on the transnationalisation of Europe, the ‘No’ campaign celebrated this failure in the name of the European people as a univocal synthesis which, they claimed, was absent in the proposed constitution. But the very form of the referendum is the moment at which political sovereignty mobilises people as a nation; the referendum is, par excellence, the materialisation of the idea of national coherence.

And exactly this reinstatement of a nation-centred logic in left politics was heavily critiqued by a series of other left social projects and movements across Europe, such as the Eurowide network against precarity (EuroMayDay), various border activist campaigns and migrant groups. These movements remind us that politics which refer to European people as a Volk come to forget that it is impossible to think people outside of nation, i.e. without deploying a notion of a political subject bounded to national sovereignty. Euro-sceptic political movements and traditional left organisations return us to the terms of national sovereignty. In so doing, they undercut the possibility for creating a common European social space which operates beyond the institutions of the nation state and creates a viable alternative to transnational neoliberal governance (and neither do they offer any tools for thinking about or beyond the regime of control which concerns us in this book – postliberal sovereignty).

Moreover, Euro-sceptics invoke a notion of European people through the discourse of a betrayed European nation. And it is on the basis of this betrayed univocal notion of European people that otherness is constructed in and expelled from the current political landscape. Consider for example the ‘moral panic’ which shook the Netherlands after the assassination of Theo van Gogh in 2004 (Mak, 2005). The declaration of the state of emergency and the pogrom-like raids which followed these events questioned thoroughly and irrevocably the established status of inclusion of migrants in Dutch society. A new form of exclusion of otherness is underway in current European politics. This exclusion is not primarily organised as a form of white supremacy (although in many cases this is happening) but it is the result of the creation of the illusionary paranoia of the univocal category ‘European people’. The fiction of the notion of European people, which is nothing other than the annulment of the colonial and postcolonial past and present of Europe, manifests in confl icts around the Eurocentric limits of integration (as the rebellion of the banlieues during the French riots of October–November 2005 showed), and in conflicts over the freedom of movement across the new borders of Europe (consider the September 2005 crisis in Ceuta and Melilla, which is literally the fi rst collective attack on a European border wall by transiting migrants from Africa).

In conclusion, the resulting picture of the situation in Europe after the 2005 ratifi cation failure has two aspects. Firstly, the dominant neoliberal forces did not manage to create a postliberal global project for Europe out of the ongoing process of European transnationalisation. And secondly, the traditional European left failed to challenge neoliberal transnationalisation: rather, fancying the logic of national sovereignty, they returned to a melancholic Keynesianism, or better, ‘left conservatism’ (Connery, 1999).

Chapter Summary

"What is the contemporary configuration of control?

Section I addresses this question. Historically, sovereignty has transformed itself in response to the continual emergence of new modes of evading control. We start by considering how national sovereignty (Chapter 1) culminated in the attempt to bind the ‘people as One’ to the nation state with promises of rights and representation, i.e. the promise of the double-R axiom, as we call it. The impossibility of such an all-inclusive nation state (plainly evident today) started to become clearer in the 1960s and 1970s, when excluded social groups contested the inclusiveness of so-called ‘universal’ modes of political representation. During this same period there was a shift from national towards transnational modes of control. Together these changes triggered a crisis at the heart of national sovereignty. In response, transnational governance (Chapter 2) emerged as a distinct form of sovereignty.

Transnational governance is marked by its attempt to create a global horizontal space of control; others call this project globalisation, neoimperialism, or empire. Of course this is no level playing fi eld and the creation of a global unified, horizontal geo-space is, in itself, a means of domination. Nevertheless, there is something different in this mode of domination: the winners and losers of globalisation cannot be conceived as nation states. Nor is it the case that nation states in their entirety participate in the processes of globalisation. Rather, particular segments of different nation states, certain institutions, social groups, local or transnational companies and cultural and technoscientific bodies align together in the attempt to dominate global transnational space.

In Chapter 3 we discuss the formation and function of these postliberal aggregates. Postliberal aggregates represent a distinct form of sovereignty which arises as a contemporary response to the limits of the double-R axiom in national and transnational governance. Their raison d’être is to build powerful, vertical composites lying beyond the liberal axiomatic of the double-R principle. The rest of the book investigates where we can locate sites for intervention and subversion in these postliberal conditions.

Power functions by rendering individuals the actors of subjectification and/or by rendering populations the objects of biopolitical control. This is a common explanation of the productivity of power; however in Section II we argue that this understanding of power does not help us to grasp or intervene in some fundamentally important aspects of power. From this vantage point, social transformation always appears as the effect of people’s response to their regulation.

Instead we argue that people are often moving, creating, connecting, escaping the immediate moments and given conditions of their lives, and that it is only after the imposition of control that some of these actions come to be seen as responses to regulation. Escape comes first! People’s efforts to escape can force the reorganisation of control itself; regimes of control must respond to the new situations created by escape.

We cannot understand escape as a decontextualised, overarching form of social transformation; it is always historically and culturally situated. In fact there is never escape as such, there are multiple ways of escaping: escape routes. In Chapter 4, ‘Vagabonds’, we consider how people’s mobility in the late Middle Ages forced the transformation of feudal power and the adoption of a new, early capitalist, system of control. Capture, in this instance, saw the vagabonds’ mobility translated into the subjectivity of the wage worker.

Chapter 5, ‘Outside Representation’, traces the contours of escape across different struggles in the post-Second World War period (e.g. feminist and workers struggles). In each case, escape is a betrayal of existing forms of representation, forms of representation that regulate everyday life through the co-option and domesticisation of people’s struggles. With Jacques Rancière, we understand representational politics as policing. Possibilities for breaking this closure lie in what we call imperceptible politics (Chapter 6).

Politics (as opposed to policing) arises when those who remain unrepresented and whose capacities remain imperceptible emerge within the normalising organisation of the social realm. Imperceptible politics does not refer to something which is invisible, but to social forces which are outside of existing regulation and outside policing. Imperceptible politics is first and foremost a question of deploying a new perceptual strategy; the senses are honed less to refl ection and more to diffraction – perception now involves tracing disturbance and intrusion instead of mirroring existing conditions. Here we can say that the process and ‘method’ of researching this book has involved cultivating this same perceptual strategy. Together, we have subjected our material to this perceptual experimentation: fi lms, autobiographies, interviews, our own experiences of political activism, ethnographic accounts, historiography, legislation, maps and existing attempts to make sense of and/or fi nd ways out of the terrain in which we tread. An attunement to diffraction underpins the interpretations and analyses of existing and possible routes of escape in the following pages. And it is the diffractive quality of imperceptible politics that allows us to see political struggles which strive to evacuate the terrain of a given regime of control. These struggles are overlooked when viewed through a lens attuned to practices of and claims for representation.

Rather than giving an exhaustive account of imperceptible politics, in Part II of the book we investigate a contemporary itinerary of escape through three important fi elds in which we can fi nd departures from the given regime of control – the fields of life, mobility and labour.

Our discussion of escape in the field of life begins with considering transformations in the regime of life control, the life/culture system (Chapter 7).

The early twentieth century saw the first pervasive attempt to employ the concept of life as a powerful tool for initiating social and political change. At this time, ideas about the uncontrollability of life were celebrated for both their cultural and their political potence. Formed around a masculinist and violent ideology, the life/culture system of control was finally appropriated by the fascist project. After the Second World War, life’s uncontrollability figured as a threat to be suppressed, in part, with the patriarchal welfare state’s promises of democratic tranquillity. But statist control was resisted with increasing intensity (e.g. the events of 1968, the proliferation of different sexualities, new biomedical discourses of the body). The erosion of a sense of security brings a renewed interest in life, and risk and its pervasive government are called forth. As risk goes transnational, a new network of life control comes to the fore.

The formation of emergent life (Chapter 8) envisages life as inherently amenable to recombinant formation on a genetic or cyber-carnal/robotic level. This vision of life’s potential has been celebrated because it breaks with traditional dichotomies which have framed understandings of life, such as nature/culture or sex/gender.

Despite this break, the formation of emergent life is central to the ascendance of postliberal sovereignty. The regime’s alignment with postliberal power occurs as its vision is mobilised and embedded not only in high-tech laboratories but in the everyday, when it becomes ordinary.

Possibilities for subverting this regime of life control lie in mobilising new modes of experience. The formation of emergent life is interrupted, diffracted, undone on the immediate level of the everyday.

In Chapter 9, ‘Everyday Excess and Continuous Experience’, we examine how attempts to work with ‘the politics of experience’ can be easily reinserted into the control and regulation of the private sphere. However, in this chapter we develop an alternative account of experience. The escape from postliberal attempts to canalise and order life occurs in the continuous refusal to reflect on or represent oneself as a set of congealed, solidified experiences produced through political projects, in entering into a process of unbecoming in order to repoliticise, not oneself, but the present. As experience unfolds on the level of the everyday it creates processes of escape, what we call continuous experience, which escape the policing practices of subjectivity.

With A. N. Whitehead, we argue that this form of experience does not belong to a person, it is dispersed in the multifarious connections between people, animals, things and occasions. Continuous experience is the ultimate ingredient of any escape route. In this sense, escape in not a human privilege or a human capacity; rather it is the matter of social transformation and social transformation is a process which is shared by people, animals and things.

The regime of mobility control – the second field of our contemporary itinerary of escape – plays a key role in the political constitution of postliberal conditions.

Chapter 10, ‘Liminal Porocratic Institutions’, explores the formation of the contemporary regime of migration control through the lens of migration policies in Europe. The different institutions partaking in the regulation of European migration are all evolving, merging and disseminating throughout transnational European space. These institutions contribute to the development of specific postliberal aggregates in European space, liminal porocratic institutions. Their liminality stems from the fact that they are in constant transition, continually adjusting to the European Union’s rapidly changing borders. Liminal porocratic institutions are beyond open democratic control. Their main function is to regulate mobility fl ows and to govern the porosity of borders (hence porocratic). Now, instead of controlling populations or individuals at geographic borders the focus is on creating various levees far beyond, on, and inside the borders in order to manage migratory flows.

In Chapter 11, ‘Excessive Movements in Aegean Transit’, we trace the main techniques of postliberal migration control at work in one of the most permeable and heavily policed lines of border crossing in Europe, the Aegean sea. We consider how migration evades its regulation, creates new conditions for mobility and movement and challenges the liminal porocratic institutions’ regime of mobility control. For instance, when we examine how migrants incorporate camps into their overall tactics of movement, we can see that the disciplinary and biopolitical functions of the camps only evolve by following the escaping and moving masses.

In Chapter 12 we draw on a theoretical approach, the autonomy of migration, to jettison the ubiquitous notions of the migrant as either a useful worker or as a victim. Instead of conceiving of migrational movements as derivatives of social, cultural and economic structures, the autonomyof- migration lens reveals migration to be a constituent creative force which fuels social, cultural and economic transformations. Migration can be understood as a force which evades the policing practices of subjectivity.

Finally, in turning to the third field in our itinerary of escape routes, the regime of labour control, we explore the conditions for value creation in contemporary, embodied capitalism. Drawing on our analysis of the formation of emergent life in Section III, we argue that the production of value in postliberal capitalism is based on the recombination of matter: humans, animals, artefacts and things. The recombination of matter includes also the recombination of the worker’s body (Chapter 13, ‘Precarious Life and Labour’). The postliberal regime of labour control does not try to dominate by training the body; it tries to fracture it, to reorder its material, affective, social potentials in unexpected ways, to harness the body’s own capacities for creative recombination. Notably, as workers’ bodies are recombined, only some parts of a worker’s body, capacities and potentials are dissected and exploited. This form of exploitation is precarity.

Sociological accounts of precarity point to its connection with the post-Fordist rise of insecure labour conditions, or they cast precarity as another instance of broader transformations in labour (such as the feminisation of work, de-industrialisation, immaterial labour).

But these kinds of sociological descriptions tend to misrecognise precarity as the emergence of a unified category of workers (i.e. as an actor like ‘the working class’, for example). They gloss over the very different ways in which precarity is lived. Neither do they grasp how people’s embodied experiences of precarity expand far beyond the immediate conditions of labour and colonise one’s whole life time-space. How, then, can we recognise and understand the politics of precarious workers if invoking a new unifi ed category of workers does not suffi ce? What routes does escape take here?

Chapter 14, ‘Normalising the Excess of Precarity’, considers the limited relevance of three forms of political organisation which have proved effective in the history of labour and social movements: the political party, the trade union and micropolitics. None of these forms of organisation impels the confl icts of precarity to the point of destabilising embodied capitalism. Traditional party and trade union politics is both anchored in and seeks to augment normalising rationalities and practices of employment. It fails to address the inequalities emerging with the new regime of labour control (e.g. it does not extend to representing illegalised workers). Social movements which operate on the newer terrain of micropolitics seem to be equally ineffective at addressing precarity. Micropolitics contests prevalent representational practices by claiming new forms of extended belonging or citizenship. Micropolitical calls for the inclusion of social actors have been important responses to the embodied experience of precarity. Nevertheless, they reterritorialise precarious workers’ subjectivities in the matrix of a new postliberal statism.

However, the embodied experience of precarity can and does escape reterritorialisation. Embodied capitalism necessitates the creation of sociability (think of the sociability required to find the next contract or to deflect questions about one’s work visa). Sociability produces value that cannot be completely commodified and appropriated by embodied capitalism. Much of this sociability generated in precarious conditions is inappropriate to the current regime of labour regulation and cannot be represented within it.

Inappropriate/d sociability, as we call it in Chapter 15, is the excess generated by workers’ experience of precarity; it simultaneously operates within the heart of embodied capitalism and it exists in a vacuum of control. This is the movement of escape; inappropriate/d sociability is the means through which precarious workers do imperceptible politics."


Excerpt from Stephan Scheel:

"The central question of Escape Routes sounds quite simple: ‘How does social transformation begin?’ But the answer that the book provides is provocative and contests many dominant explanations of social change: according to the authors it is not the brimming revolutionary events occupying the imagination of the left that capture the mechanics of social transformation but the seemingly ‘insignificant occurrences of people’s daily actions’. It is in the everyday practices and imperceptible moments which make up people’s ‘escape’ from a given social order that we can find the beginnings of social transformation. While sovereign power relies on what the authors call the ‘double-R axiom’ to control and stabilize a given social order by granting rights and offering forms of representation to particular social groups, people do not always confront or resist a given regime of control but evacuate and escape existing modes of rights and forms of representation and thereby force a given social order to transform itself:’Sovereignty manifests in response to escape…Control is a cultural-political device which comes afterwards to tame and eventually to appropriate people’s escape. Social struggle comes first’(p. 43).

Based on this thesis the authors describe the ongoing transformations of sovereign power from the perspective of people’s escape (Part I, pp. 1-82). While national sovereignty relied on the first ‘R’ of the ‘double-R axiom’ and tried to include subverting subjects, groups and interests in the Fordist welfare state by gradually expanding the distribution of cultural, social and political rights, this logic was challenged by the emergence of new social actors in the fields of migration, gender and queer politics, antiracist movements, worker’s autonomy which couldn’t be conceived within the existing framework of citizenship and therefore forced sovereign power to move beyond national boundaries. According to the authors’ main thesis cited above, the emergence of transnational neoliberal sovereignty is not primarily the outcome of the determining laws inherent to capital accumulation or the result of a successful attempt of some elites to expand their power on a global level, but comprises a ‘response to the necessity to tame the reappearance of imperceptible and escaping subjectivities in the post-Second World War period’ (p. 18).

The central hypothesis of the book is provocative because the theoretical conception of ‘imperceptible politics’ involves a harsh criticism of mainstream social sciences and left ideologies alike. As the authors write, ‘imperceptible politics is first and foremost a question of deploying a new perceptual strategy, [that] involves tracing disturbance and intrusion instead of mirroring existing conditions’ (p. XV). The authors reject positivist approaches of the social sciences as a form of maintenance of existing regimes of control. While these regimes of control work by employing the process of representation, escape relies on the ‘knot of fictionality and literality to construct and materialise new forms of experience’ that evade existing forms of representation. Control regimes react to these attempts of escape by interrupting the connection between fictionality and literality through representation: while the former is delegitimized as ‘impossible, quixotic or impracticable’ control tries to render the later productive by making it representable in current polity. In this sense positivist accounts of the given social order are one of the main instruments for ‘policing the border between the fictional and the real’.

Moreover the authors try to break with the two most influential schools of thought in the discourses of the contemporary left: the different varieties of Hegelian neo- and post-Marxism and Foucault’s conception of power. Because ‘imperceptible politics’ operate in the present, the authors break with ‘the faith in the event to come’, that is usually cultivated by the adepts of Marxism. According to them it is neither the future ‘revolution’ nor the state-centred ‘melancholic Keyenesianism’ of many contemporary left groups that is going to liberate people from control, suppression and exploitation. While the calming belief in the liberating event to come only served to justify the silencing of deviants and the enforcement of party discipline in the present the melancholic call for the paternalistic welfare state only resembles a variety of ‘left conservatism’ that reifies the nation-state. It is neither the belief in a redeeming future event nor the melancholic longing for the past but the potency of the present situation that initiates social change. This leads the authors to paraphrase the slogan of alter-globalisation movements of 90’s by claiming: ‘Another world is here’.

By asserting that escape precedes the formation of control Papadopoulos, Stephenson and Tsianos break with the circular relationship of power and resistance in Foucault’s conception of power. While Foucault thinks resistance as a constitutive element of a power relation and thereby assumes an omnipotent control regime that encompasses the whole of society, which is only refined by acts of resistance, the authors of Escape Routes draw on Nicos Poloulantzas state theory to ascribe a relative autonomy to social struggles. Because Foucault’s concept of power only allows to think resistance as an effect of and complicit to control the authors replace resistance with the notion of subversion to designate a desire that betrays given orders of control. These theoretical innovations make it possible to think resistance not only in negative terms – that is as a force directed against regulation – but as a positive force that strives to move beyond a given control regime by evacuating its terrain. Consequently, the authors say ‘adieu Foucault!’ without melancholy.

These provocative theoretical innovations are likely to trigger defensive reactions. Moreover the authors develop terminology which oppose the common understanding of the vocabulary. For example ‘escape’ is usually conceived as a weak and sometimes forced reaction to severe circumstances like war or political prosecution but not as a creative and initial force that is capable of triggering social change. The concept of ‘imperceptible politics’ which is composed by the non-intentional everyday practices of the people is even more suspicious to a reader who is used to regard social movements, trade unions and other forms of identifiable political organisations as the decisive initiators of social and political change. Doesn’t this neologism just romanticize people’s daily struggles for survival as radical acts of subversion? Aren’t the authors just inventing something which is not there at all when they demand from us to ‘deploy a new perceptual strategy’ in order to perceive these ‘imperceptible moments’ that supposedly lead to social transformation? Aren’t the authors just inviting us to participate in a passivity that results in the apolitical affirmation of the given when they call for the overcoming of established forms of political organisation? And isn’t the call to leave behind ‘the left’s fixation with events’ just another variety of reformism in new clothes that tries to diminish the belief in the possibility of radical change? Such objections are countered in the second part of the book (pp. 85-300) by examining the role of imperceptible politics and escape in three distinct ’social-material fields’: the material field that is constituted through attempts to remake the composition of life processes (pp. 85-161), the global field that is traversed by migrants’ mobility (pp. 162-221) and the reorganisation of the structure of production and employment relations through precarious labour (pp. 222-300)." (

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