From the Popular Front to the Populous Fronts

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Howard Slater:

"In the days of the Arab Spring, Syntagma Square, the Occupy Movement, the public sector strike and the education struggles we were witness to a renewed ‘popular front’ of sorts. A ‘populous front’ that brought together different levels, forms and registers of protest. It was interesting to note that in Athens many sectors of the left viewed the initial Syntagma Square assemblies with suspicion. The spectre of nationalism, inaugural in the historic popular front of Soviet Policy, was off-putting and, however briefly, seen by some as a definitional overcoding of the assemblies. Yet, re-reading some of the initial statements made in these assemblies and the reported suspicion of a political hijacking of them, it is interesting to note that many of these statements were directly ‘affecting’ expressions of suffering that seem to be uttered in defiance of the ‘languages of power’. The ‘public intimacy’ that was maybe witnessed in Syntagma, and doubtless in North Africa, seemed to not only outmanoeuvre the Left but, moreover, in an echo of the catalytic cahiers de doleance of Revolutionary France, it perhaps recast an individual expression of suffering within the form of the collective assembly as the formation of singularities within a ‘collective assemblage of enunciation’.19 In such assemblages as those at Syntagma Square could it be that the repressed idea of the ‘individual’ no longer met the repressing idea of the collective and the double-bind of leftist politics was loosened just as the ‘compromise formation’ associated with the ‘popular front’ was dynamicised: the anonymous articulations of Syntagma Square were enabled to be both ‘singular’ (individual) and ‘molar’ (collective) at the same time. Such a simultaneity, abandoning the strict chronological compartmentalisation that comes with the ‘unified subject’ of representational politics, could itself be seen as a loosening up of the repressed will to speak; a will that does not necessarily follow blindly a bourgeois use of language. That use of language, as a matter of course, seeks to convince, induce obligation and fix us as the irrevocable ‘subject of the statement’. As artist-therapist Lygia Clarke has mentioned: when ‘we are opening on to the anonymous work whose signature is nothing but the participant’s action’, then, there is nothing supplementary to the given of the statement. There is no need, within the collective assemblage of enunciation, to either have the last word or needlessly assert the self as already collective.20

That the accent at this first assembly was on a direct and unmediated expression of suffering perhaps helped in the formation of a ‘populous front’ that did not rely solely upon ideas and on a fitting political subject, but made a relational context for an improvised sharing of species suffering (affectability).21 This has been a submerged current of the left. Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, writing in the 1970s, expressed a ‘need for solidarity that can be grasped with the senses’ and, in a different register, the poet Abdellatif Laâbi, wrote: ‘Adwah. I’m sorry. I’m revealing myself as I truly am. I don’t spin fantasies to enhance my correctness or my ‘normality’’. This ‘grasping with senses’ and ‘revealing myself’ is tantamount to the formation of another ‘unconscious pathway’, in that these denuded practices are more or less a mode of chipping at the distrait of repression (our psychical loyalties to capitalism). The sharing of such a practice in a ‘collective assemblage’ like that of the initial Syntagma Forum is directly affecting and inspiring of solidarity. In these moments the ‘presentational level of the self’, that could figure as a ‘compromise formation’ covering over intra-psychic conflict, has been practically (albeit momentarily) discarded, and, along with it, a mode of politics that is more akin to a continuation of reified social relationships.

This ‘denuded’ aspect that ensures that communication is encouraged to be opened up through ‘unconscious passageways’ as much as proceeding from a conscious political positioning seems to shift the political terrain towards that of ‘affectibility’, toward the ‘unthought known’, rather than towards the ideolects of the thought known, of abstract knowledge.22 Colectivo Situacionnes have given expression to something akin to this in terms of what they call the crisis of ‘political subjectivity’. This latter ‘separates itself physically and affectively from the situation, taking the situation as an object and linking to it in a purely analytical fashion’.23 Such an operation, in line with bourgeois modes of learning and expression could, at its extreme, be said to be inducive of ‘textual psychosis’. The drive to know in order to have a correct understanding seems to result in disabling any immersion of the body in a situation, which in turn, reduces the possible affectability of that body and the possibility for any commonality which the radical intelligensia often strive for. That the intellectual’s bodily presence is removed from a situation seems indicative of a moral transcendence that is the by-product of only linking to the situation by means of an ‘abstract knowledge’. This reduction in affectability could then play itself out not only as a removal from a common plane of immanence (the ‘situational present’ as Colectivo Situaciones may call it), but as an increasing distance between what is called the ‘statement of the the subject’ and what is called the ‘subject of the statement’. Any fidelity between these two would require a form of being conscious as much of the body and its affectability within any given situation as it would some pure union of abstract knowledge and perfect enunciation.

With the struggle for the means of expression, often disavowed by the radical intelligensia, we may be in the vicinity of an arousal of self-consciousness. In the past and with the historical popular front it could be said that ‘class consciousness’ was the predominant binding factor and that this was, as Murray Bookchin argues, posed against self-consciousness.24 This latter, associated with ‘individualism’, may have a different potential meaning under the terms of our being ‘raw material’ for the ‘production of subjectivity’. Under these ‘endocolonial’ conditions coming to ‘self-consciousness’ could be just as full of struggle as class consciousness: the coming to self-consciousness could actually entail the dispelling of illusions, the examination of self-images, the sifting out of capitalist ‘individuation’ processes and the ‘integration’ of the countless ego-precipitates of our ‘internal populations’ (i.e. diasporic social psyche). And so, with capital’s domination being as much psychical as material, with, as Guattari is keen to point out, the different levels of capitalist individuation that we undergo, the ‘popular front’ could well now figure as a form of collective coming to consciousness, a common plane of immanence, that is ‘bringing about mutations in the unconscious social field independently of the discourses held by separated groups’.25

The ‘discourses held by different groups’ (or person-groups) may well figure within the rubric of the ‘division of labour’ as forms of separation, as blocks that, in keeping to the disciplinary confines of bourgeois culture, constantly reinforce the in/out of those groups and thereby disable the ‘unconscious passageways’ between groups and discourses. A black power militant like George Jackson could write: ‘I don’t consider myself a writer, an intellectual, really none of those things that can be isolated...’, which, when set against his support for Huey Newton’s urging of a ‘popular front’ in the late ’60s, is illustrative of the Black Panthers’ keen awareness of the bourgeois control paradigm of ‘divide and rule’.26 This pitfall of an isolation that extends to intra-psychic division (denial of the social psyche) seems to find its antidote in what Jackson refers to as a ‘common need’ and an ‘allied effort’. The creation of allies is then akin to the formation of social relations other than those relations that are determined by the value-form and this necessitates a resistance to being dominated by discourses that in themselves carry the remnants of ‘divide and rule’ techniques; remnants that come to light as the ‘unconscious passageways’ are traversed. The lack of ‘demands’ that’s been remarked of the Occupy movement is maybe a means by which this form of ‘allied effort’ came to elude either being captured by any one political grouping or presenting itself as conventionally ‘political’. For ‘demands’ carry with them the potential to ‘divide and rule’: some are satisfied and others are not.

The lack of ‘demands’ may be indicative of a ‘mutation in the unconscious social field’ in that, beyond any platform or unifying discourse, the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement seemed to be presenting an ‘enigma’; something ambivalent that both eludes the commonly held syntax of politics and severs the ‘languages of power’ from its identification with ‘political subjects’. It is not so much a matter of telepathy that brings people to this form of protest, but a response to the way that politics itself is being outflanked by capitalist financial institutions (the ever present dictatorship of capital). In a manner akin to the outflanking of Trade Union diktats and control of workers struggle, the Occupy movement was perhaps turning its back on political representation (another route to ‘divide and rule’) and becoming instead a marker of transversality: ‘continual movement from one front to another’.27 That the unconscious knows no ‘specialist divisions’ and is in a sense the guarantor of our being ‘free to roam’, means that these ‘crossings’ between places and discourses, these fusions of militant practices (encampment, squats, forums, marches, music making, communal kitchen etc.), are effecting ‘mutations in the unconscious social field’ not simply for those who support the movements, but for those becoming self-consciously pre-disposed to protest. Such a proliferation of forms and practices encourages the inclusion of other practices. The ‘mutations’ become ‘mutations’ of the subject as it is produced into producing itself – a ‘generative mutuality’ leading, hopefully, beyond the ‘political subject’.28

Such a ‘populous front’, that is in a certain sense ‘without a head’ or a ‘particular face’, seems to evoke the heterogeneous groupings and collectives that are outlined by E.P. Thompson in his Making of the English Working Class. That this book is set in the years after the French Revolution also provides the parallel of a monarchic squandering of wealth amidst generalised suffering akin to the bank bailouts of 2008 and their effecting of a more inclusive impoverishment. It is also interesting that the groups he mentions – the Black Lamp, the Luddites, London Corresponding Society – did not accompany their actions with manifestos or credos. They did not use the ‘languages of power’ and the absence of such ‘totalising discourse’ could then perhaps be indicative of their protest as being one of non-excluding ‘bodies’; a mutuality of custom rather than dogma. So, with the encampment at St. Paul’s we not only saw a collection of bodies (almost a ‘sensorium’) living together in close vicinity we also saw that, instead of one unifying discourse taking precedence, there was a daily convening of a heterogeneity of discourses that marked a ‘shift in interlocutor’.29 This could have had the effect of making the St Paul’s Occupy encampment into a consciousness-raising practice rather than as the formation of a political demand made by ‘political subjects’. Such an accent upon the nearness of each other, the concomitant production and reproduction of social relations as well as the co-research accent through exposure to different interlocutors had the feel of not exacerbating the negative. These practices are maybe what made this ‘populous front’ opaque to some sections of the left that not only uses its own reified structures as a socialisation apparatus but, which, along with this, can seem to inject a form of psychosis (reified relationship) into its politics.

For Klaus Theweleit, in his study of male fantasies, a key form that this psychosis takes is a de-cathecting of the body. An unquestioning use of ‘languages of power’ serves not only to separate the radical intelligentsia from the ‘body of the people’, but from their own bodies as well. Such a separation mechanism, a means of distancing and replacing the distance from others with fantasies of knowledge can, at best, be called idealism, but at its worst it could go under the rubric of ‘textual psychosis’. Theweleit offers that a key aspect of this political psychosis is that the ‘the body-ego is contained in a number of external social or organisational egos: nation, troop, party’.30 Yet, it could be added, so too is the body-ego potentially projected into books, meetings and committees, and, it could be interestingly conjectured, into the formulation of ‘demands’. For Theweleit an ego that is dependent upon external support is a fragile ego that needs a ‘larger social formation to guarantee its boundaries’. It may be a little far fetched to extrapolate from this that there is, within the totalising discourses of leftist theory, the same function of an exteriorisation of the body-ego. Nonetheless, it is not without interest to see that such an exteriorisation is, so Theweleit maintains, what, through the valorisation of ‘larger social formations’, furthers the ‘de-differentiation and de-vivification of living life’ which, he maintains, is a key facet of psychosis.31That the ‘languages of power’ also add to this de-vivification (encouraging as they do a stolid lack of fit between abstract ideas and bodily expressivity) would maybe come to figure ‘textual psychosis’ as an effect of the disembodiments that arise when the reified abstractions of discourses are taken as exterior ego supports, as surrogates for a ‘subjective life’ the ego cannot bear (or simply represses in the name of the ‘collective’).

This ‘larger social formation’, the aim of the historic ‘popular front’ and the paradigm of politics itself, is a means through which our diasporic selves, our singularities and their collective becomings are thwarted to the degree that they become subject, through ‘languages of power’, to the psychotic tendencies harboured in mass movements. Not only were the institutions of the popular front arranged on hierarchic lines and drawn into the numbers game of capitalist democracy, they maybe came to figure as ‘external drives’ that sought the investment of our political desires. The bid to become ‘mass’ had an homogenising function and with this came the removal of any pleasure in revolt. The ‘de-differentiation and de-vivification’ that Theweleit speaks of is tantamount to the dangerous suppression of bodies-of-desire that became readied for re-channelling as, at a relational level, the projection of the negative self-object into other groups which undercuts any chance of an ‘allied effort’ (unconscious passageways are not only blocked but actively elided as no-go zones). So, the gradual formation of the working class political parties signalled the end of the ‘molecular mass’ (Theweleit) of those myriad of groups that E.P. Thompson describes. These may well have been more akin to impermanent ‘collective assemblages of enunciation’ in that they maybe enabled the means of expression to be won at a time before the means of production came to be the predominant focus of the workers’ movement.

But the means of expression are never won outright and their crucial role as a factor of production seems to imply that for any popular front to become a populous front, then, as Bookchin and Raoul Vaneigem have both mentioned, the struggle for the unconscious (and its ‘passageways’) cannot be left off the map. Such a struggle would be premised upon our far from ideologically correct ‘internal populations’ seeking a form of expression as much as it would be informed by a further reiteration of the hitherto understood forms of ‘political subjectivity’. This has been one of the lasting fruits of some elements of the women’s liberation movement. Not only did it endeavour to bring to light a ‘politics of desire’, a profiling of political desiring investments and their extension to the reproductive sphere, it also ‘spoke the language of pleasure... not that of demands’ as well as providing a non-paranoiac and safe space for the flipside of this: the languages of anxiety and fear, the languages of belonging and exclusion, the languages of personalised responsibility and collective absolution.32 Such an avowal of the ‘actual experience of subjective life’ (what George Jackson called ‘a diagnosis of our discomfort’) foresees the crisis of political subjectivity that has been brought about by the dictatorship of capital and its endocolonial effects. A way out of the ‘compromise formation’ towards a populous front could well be about recognising the ‘incomplete expression’ of political languages,about working towards discerning ‘unconscious passageways’, seeking out differentiating interlocutors and collectively expressing common sufferance and intra-psychic conflict.33 These may not only be the ground of a renewed cahiers de doleance that seems to have been collectively expressed in the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement, but a means of working with heretofore depoliticised materials and bringing subjective processes inflected with the value-form to the surface. Was it that such material found a mode of expression in the repeated calls for ‘dignity’ that, in 2011, could be heard from the Magrheb to the Mashriq?" (