New Associationist Movement

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Carl Cassegard:

"Karatani’s new activist stance is manifested in the founding of the New Associationist Movement (NAM) in Osaka in June 2000, whose goal was to resist this “unholy trinity”. NAM numbered close to 600 members a year after its inauguration, but it was soon beset by various problems – a small number of members, increasing bureaucratization and personal tensions – and the organization was dissolved in 2003. [11]

Despite its failure, a study of the ideas that led Karatani to conceive of it is instructive. What I find especially interesting is the extent to which he conceived of NAM in terms of exit. The turn to movement activism and the establishment of NAM in no sense signifies an abandonment of Karatani’s championship of people’s right to turn their back on public involvement, and is better understood, I suggest, as his answer to how social movements can be organized in an age when many have chosen to do exactly that. Significantly, a strong emphasis on the individual’s right to withdrawal, privacy and anonymity is retained in his thought even after his turn to movement activism. Although not a follower of Yoshimoto – they have criticized each other on a number of occasions [12] – Karatani carries on the legacy of the latter thinker in an important sense, namely in pointing to the emancipatory aspects of withdrawal and in the resistance to the totalitarian collective, the state or the unitary system of thought. Unlike both Yoshimoto and Asada, however, Karatani insists on the need to exit not only the state and the mainstream public sphere, but also the capitalist market. Unlike them, he tries to affirm privatization and flight in a way that makes it possible to utilize the rhetoric of exit for the purpose of social movement activism. On both these points, Karatani’s thinking marks a new departure in the development of the rhetoric of exit in Japan.

The rhetoric of exit in NAM

In what sense did Karatani concretely present NAM as using a vehicle for “exit”? I will focus on four instances – the rejection of confrontation in favour of “exscendent” counter-acts, the ideal of impersonality, the advocacy of lottery, and Karatani’s concept of the “public” – taking his works during recent years, NAM’s program, pamphlets, interviews and other texts concerning the movement as my material.

(1) To overcome the limitations of previous protest movements, Karatani proposes a combination of strategies that are “immanent” (naizaiteki) and “exscendent” (choshutsuteki) in relation to the capitalist economic system (or a combination of voice and exit to use Hirschman’s terms). The term “exscendent” is a neologism explained to mean “exiting and transcendent” (Karatani 2003:308 n14).

The immanent counteracts would include consumer boycotts and labor strikes, i.e. direct confrontations waged by consumers and workers participating in the capitalist system. However, NAM itself never engaged in such immanent counter-acts, instead devoting almost all its efforts to the exscendent or external counter-acts. By this Karatani means activities outside the capitalist system. From the outset NAM was launched as the germ of a future society that would gradually replace the existing capitalist society, even if it required “several centuries”. In particular he places his hope in the non-violent growth of alternative non-capitalist economies that could also function as safety nets for activists and groups disadvantaged within the capitalist system (Karatani 2000, 2002:208f, 2003:24f, 300ff). NAM’s exscendent activities included the establishment of an alternative school in Osaka for school-dropouts. Its aim was not to help dropouts back to school but to redirect their “exits” towards non-capitalist forms of schooling and was explicitly modeled on Murakami Ryu’s novel Kibo no kuni no ekusodasu (Yamazumi 2001:254). This emphasis on excendent counter-acts meant that NAM was never intended to function as a protest movement, but rather was a form of social experiment, functioning as a forum for studies and discussions and focusing on cultivating long-term utopian projects.

The avoidance of violent confrontation is an attempt by Karatani to overcome the historical legacy of “defeat” among anti-systemic movements. Thus he criticizes traditional Marxism for remaining stuck with an old-fashioned idea of revolution based on the violent street riots of the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. The “counter-action” or “counter-acts” (taiko) of NAM cannot be modelled on traditional violent revolutions.

Since the Puritan Revolution, bourgeois revolutions have always involved violent acts. Even some socialist revolutions have been violent. However, that is only because they occurred in countries where the bourgeois revolutions (read sweeping of feudal remnants) or the formation of the nation-state had not yet been completed. Still there are many regions on earth where violent revolution is necessary. It is unjust and pointless for bourgeois ideologues to criticize this type of revolution. They are oblivious to their own pasts. But the point I want to make is that what abolishes – not just regulates – the bourgeois state (capital / state amalgamation) is no longer the violent revolution. I would call this other movement a counteraction rather than a revolution (Karatani 2003:344)

Karatani’s rejection of street uprisings and demonstrations also implies a rejection of the tactics used by the protest movements of the 60’s (ibid 2003:285). His relationship to those movements, in which he himself took part as a student, is complex. He is critical of those intellectuals who call for a repetition of “1968” today and instead stresses the need to break out of the “sterile cycle” of failed protest which he sees in Japanese history. Here he implicitly draws on Freud’s idea that a traumatized patient who fails to verbalize the loss will instead be forced to act it out symptomatically and “repeat” it. By rejecting romantic protest, Karatani appears to call for a proper “working through” of the trauma of defeat in order to bring about a genuine recovery (ibid 2005).

Like Yoshimoto, then, Karatani stresses the need to recognize the experiences of the 60s as a “defeat”. To him, however, that does not mean that efficacious social movement activism cannot be pursued. It is not political activism as such that has been discredited, only the tactics of public confrontation.

(2) The central project among NAM’s exscendent activities was the so-called Q-project, the establishment of LETS (Local Economic Trading System) that would bypass the official monetary system of Japan using an Internet-based electronic currency called Q. The idea of LETS was initiated by Michael Linton in Canada in 1982 and gained popularity in Japan in the late 90’s. LETS resembles a system of reciprocal gifts, since the currency is freely issued by the purchaser at the time of buying. As soon as a transaction is made, the amount is subtracted from the account of the seller and added to the account of the buyer. The seller thus immediately gets his or her money, while the “minus” post of the buyer represents his or her “debt” or commitment to the LETS-community.

The Q-project – which was based on the theories of Nishibe Makoto, an economist from Hokkaido University – started trading in 2001 and today survives under the name LETS-Q . It stands out from most other LETS through its use of an Internet-based currency and its clear aim to create an alternative to capitalist society. One advantage of Q over the official national currency, Nishibe points out, is that it is not issued by the central bank, but by the “workers-as-consumers” themselves. It therefore works as a countermeasure against social exclusion and helps local initiatives in times of scarce capital. Moreover, since there is little point in accumulating Q for its own sake, Nishibe hopes that it will create a new form of market in which money won’t become a “fetish” or turn into what Marx called “capital”, a means of generating surplus value. Finally, since it allows a mixed use with the national currency, Nishibe believes that it will be able to grow gradually, without needing to replace the capitalist market at once with a full-scale non-capitalist economy (Nishibe 2001).

Karatani’s endorsement of the Q-project reflects his wish to revive exchange mechanisms that resemble the gift economy of small-scale communities, but without their parochialism. Since electronic currencies can extend over large areas, the transactions would – he hopes – eventually become just as impersonal as in a capitalist market. “The death of the capitalistic market economy”, he stresses “is not the death of the market economy” (Karatani 2004:456).

To Karatani, the potential “market-like” impersonality of Q was one of its chief advantages. To understand why, we should recall that he has long criticized older Leftist movements for hewing to the idea of a community to which even critics must belong and to which they must address their criticism. “Even those who criticize […] class-society imagine a beautiful community in which people are mutually dependent and help each other” (ibid 1989b:235). For NAM to break the hold of this idea, it was important to grope for some more impersonal form of association. As mentioned, already in the 80’s Karatani started to conceive of the market as an “intercrossing” space existing in-between communities and constituted by the interaction between “strangers”. Such impersonality now became the ideal of Q, and even of NAM as such. Associations, he states, are based on contracts between mutual strangers, just like transactions in the capitalist market (Karatani & Sakabe 2001). Through such “market-like” traits, associations like NAM would be able to outgrow capitalism by utilizing tendencies within capitalism itself.

Modeling associations on the market economy, Karatani can be said to mimic the tendency to privatization typical of capitalist markets. [13] Already in Yoshimoto, we saw a defense of the masses’ right to indulge in private pursuits. What is new in Karatani is the attempt to incorporate this pursuit into the modus operandi of a social movement. The counter-acts against capitalism become possible not by denying privatization and resurrecting the sense of community and solidarity, but by harnessing privatization to the goal of fostering a new economy. The “solidarity” and “common aim” so often stressed as defining features of social movements (e.g. Melucci 1996) are downplayed in favor of a respect for the participants’ privacy. An illustration of this is Karatani’s statement that the motive for joining Q is irrelevant – “it’s fine if people join for personal gain”. What is important is not the moral or idealistic reasons that drive people to participate, but the growth of alternative systems as such (Karatani 2002:207, Karatani & Suga 2005:209). [14]

(3) In NAM, lottery was introduced in the final stage of elections to the central board. Lottery, Karatani argues, helps prevent organizations from constricting individual freedom (Karatani 2003:306). To explain, we need to turn to some of his older writings. In these he sometimes discusses the difference between liberalism and democracy, which reflects his reading of Carl Schmitt. It is well known that Schmitt criticizes liberalism – a basic tenet of which is the establishment of a system of rights and “checks and balances” to prevent the centralization of power – in favor of democracy, which he defines as rule based on the identity between the ruler and the people. Karatani turns the tables on Schmitt, arguing that what is needed is precisely liberalism. For instance, what protects discriminated minorities is the liberal defense of decentralization, division of powers and human rights, rather than the idea of democracy stressing uniformity and the rule of majorities. Democracy, he claims, easily lends itself to justifying the centralization of power and even the “sacrifice of the foreigner”. The counterpart of the democratic idea of a government “representing” the will of people is the idea of a public sphere in which citizens express their views and become political “subjects”. Just like thinkers such as Yoshimoto, Karatani is suspicious of the latent totalitarianism inherent in such calls for participation, to which he opposes the freedom to withdraw and not to be a “subject”. The freedom to keep silent, he argues, may be more important than the freedom of expression (ibid 1999:128f).

As an example, he mentions Athenian democracy, which he believes was made possible not only by the freedom of speech but also by voter anonymity, which protected the weak from having to confront the powerful. Equally crucial in preventing the emergence of dictators was lottery. With a few exceptions such as military commanders, magistrates and jurors in Athens were not elected but appointed by lottery. Lottery, however, is an element missing in contemporary democracies, which in Karatani’s view still leans towards the Schmittian idea of democracy as an organic totality joining leader and people through the fiction of “representation”. Lottery helps deconstruct this fiction by introducing contingency in the election process. To avoid the fixation of power, Karatani therefore advocates the use of lottery not only in NAM, but also in the state and in companies, parties, unions and other organizations (ibid 2002:118; Karatani & Suga 2005:191).

Here we can observe two things. Firstly, in designing the organizational structure of NAM, Karatani puts priority on the freedom to withdraw and keeping ones anonymity rather than creating a sense of community or togetherness by participating in the public. Secondly, we can see that his proposed system of lottery bypasses “communicative action”. Contingency, or chance, is introduced in a way that replaces the public debate that is usually thought to be the lifeblood of the public sphere. In both of these respects, NAM takes leave of the strategy of “voice”.

(4) We have seen that Karatani in various ways champions the right to withdraw from participation in various arenas of mainstream society. The “exits” that NAM aimed at did not, however, imply a return to private space. Neither did NAM seek to participate in the public sphere in the conventional sense. To what, then, did NAM try to exit?

Karatani’s answer to this question can be found in Transcritique, where he uses Kant to change the meaning of “public”. The “public” should not be understood as linked to existing communities, but as a space where we encounter others who follow a different set of rules. In What Is Enlightenment? Kant defines the public use of reason as the use anyone can “make of it as a man of learning addressing the entire reading public”, while the private use of reason is more narrowly restricted to the use “a person may make of it in a particular civil post or office”. As Karatani remarks, this definition inverts the usual meaning of “public” and “private”: “In common usage, ‘public’, as opposed to ‘private’, is uttered at the level of community or nation, but Kant considered the public in this sense to be the private domain” (Karatani 2003:101). From a Kantian viewpoint, then, the “public” cannot be equated to the existing mainstream “public sphere” of national communities like Japan. It is not immanent to any “system”, but always transcends borders – or as Kant puts it: the public use of reason is that made by a person who considers himself a member of a Weltbürgerschaft, as a world citizen.

What NAM aimed at was to venture out into a “public” in the Kantian sense. In Karatani’s usage this is the equivalent of transcritical space: a space located in-between communities and, like the market, functioning as a place of intercourse for strangers. Since this is a place where no common rules or norms can be presupposed, it is better thought of as an indefinite space to which one exits than as an existing arena which one joins or to which one belongs. “Being public” is not about participating in institutionalized forms of interaction but about exiting to a space where the “singularity” of the individual is not constricted by the community. “In a community, being individual is deemed being private […]. For Kant, however, being individual is equivalent to being public – in the cosmopolitan sense” (ibid 101).

As we saw in Yoshimoto and Maruyama, the “private masses” are often set up in opposition to politically or publicly engaged “citizens”. Karatani’s concept of the public avoids both of these categories. It has less to do with voice – free and open discussions among politically engaged “citizens” – than with exit, but this exit differs from that of the politically disillusioned “masses” in being a political counter-act intended to help break open the “trinity of capital, nation and state”. As Hirschman (1970) points out, voice is often a collective activity that tends to be preferred in the sphere of politics, whereas exit is typically a private and silent option employed in the market. By portraying exit as a political and “public” manifestation, Karatani calls the usefulness of the common separation between political voice and apolitical exit into question.

Is a social movement for exiters possible?

The picture emerging of NAM is of an organization aspiring to exit on two levels. On the one hand, we find passages evoking a collective exodus from mainstream Japan. On the other hand, in the downplaying of inner solidarity and commitment, the stress is on individual exit. Although NAM as a whole aimed at an exit from capitalism, it also promoted a prior, partial disengagement of individual members from the very idea of togetherness. Even within NAM the ties between members seem to have been weak and impersonal, “like in a market” to quote Karatani. [15] In both of these respects, NAM can be said to represent an attempt to establish a social movement that would be attractive to those disillusioned with “participation” in the mainstream public as well as with the “inner solidarity” stressed in many earlier movements. It was Karatani’s answer to how a movement could satisfy the need of withdrawal and nevertheless have corroding and subversive effects on contemporary systems of control.

However, there is a tension between the two levels. NAM was supposed to function both as a movement and as a shelter or sanctuary from mainstream society where members could feel secure in their privacy and no one demanded that they identify with the movement. To be convincing, the rhetoric would need to portray a strategy of resistance that could be realistically employed even by those who have given up participation in the mainstream public sphere, the traditional arena of social struggles. Simply withdrawing from political participation in order to go along with private pursuits may be the first step to “autonomy” for Yoshimoto, but from Karatani’s perspective it is not enough since it fails to break out of the “trinity of capital, nation and state”. What is needed is to provide an alternative arena to which exit can be redirected. To Karatani, this arena was economically modeled on the idea of LETS and politically on the idea of an alternative, Kantian “public”.

The tension in Karatani’s rhetoric stems from the fact that it is far from clear how such redirection would occur. Those who withdraw from the mainstream social order in search of a shelter are not necessarily those who engage in a movement for constructing alternative arenas – the former may well view participation in movements as well as futile. The tension in NAM’s rhetoric points to a deeper difficulty or dilemma in the rhetoric, which seems to revolve around the question whether movements relying on exit rather than voice are really viable.

Karatani is not the only proponent of the rhetoric of exit who is struggling with this problem. From a different angle it also appears in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, two prominent advocates of exit in today’s alter-globalization movement. Before returning to Karatani, it will be instructive to look at their attempts at a solution. Their version of the rhetoric centres on the claim that “desertion” and “exodus” are the most effective ways to offer resistance to the newly emerging system of global governance which they call “Empire” (Hardt & Negri 2000:212). By these terms they understand an evacuation of the sites of power, which is non-recuperable from the standpoint of capital or power. But what do the terms mean concretely? In Empire (2000) the main examples of desertion and exodus are refugees, migrant labour, escaped slaves, and the mass-emigrations that triggered the fall of the Berlin Wall. Resting on a myriad of individual decisions – a “diffusion of singularities” – rather than organized movement, the effect of these desertions is said to be to silently weaken the system of power, undermining it rather than fighting it. This is an idea that Virno has put succinctly: “The State will crumble, then, not by a massive blow to its head, but through a mass withdrawal from its base, evacuating its means of support” (Virno & Hardt 1996:261f).

As critics have pointed out, however, the question of whether migrants and refugees qualify as an effective countermovement against Empire is left unexplored. [16] In Multitude (2004) and other recent texts the concept of exodus tends to be broadened into a metaphor of resistance as such, including voice and public confrontation. [17] Simultaneously, the central image illustrating the concept shifts to the mass-demonstrations of the alter-globalization movement in Seattle and Genoa. [18] The result of these changes is that the concept becomes more confrontational – what is needed is not simply to abandon or “undermine” power by depriving it of participation and support but actively to turn against it and topple it, through “a blow to its head” to use Virno’s words. This vacillation indicates a basic unresolved dilemma. The more they stress the undermining effects of the withdrawal of various subaltern groups from imperial control, the thinner the link to organized resistance becomes. Conversely, the more they connect their theory to the present surge in anti-corporate and anti-war activism, the more its empirical content tends to merge with the traditional movement repertoire of voice and public confrontation.

In comparison with Hardt & Negri, Karatani’s concept of exit is less mixed with elements of voice. As in their writings, the act of exit and the construction of a new society are conceived of as one and the same process. To Karatani, however, the idea of “exscendent counter-acts” is more than a “diffusion of singularities” and it is never used as a mere metaphor. The “trinity of capital, nation and state” must be undermined by the construction and gradual growth of alternative economic systems and the increasing flow of “exiters” to these alternatives. Karatani is therefore never tempted to portray exit, or “exscendent” counter-acts, in a way that makes them resemble the use of voice or public confrontations typical of classical social movements. Cultivating the project of an alternative economy is more important than rebelling or confronting mainstream society. The way he combines the rhetoric of exit with movement activism is therefore entirely different from what we see in Hardt & Negri. Instead of transforming the content of exit into that of voice, he attempts to conceive of a social movement that is capable of being efficacious without operating with voice. [19]

Karatani’s solution is not free from difficulties. He appears to imply that people simply pursuing their private concerns within a frame like NAM will give rise to a self-organizing process which will erode capitalism. “When bright minds start pouring into non-capitalist modes of production, capital is in for trouble” (Karatani & Murakami 2001:77). Here Karatani appears to view the exiters as acting from a position of strength. There is no need to directly confront capitalism, since exit alone will result in a devastating “brain-drain” which will sap its strength. This may appear overly optimistic in retrospect. Apart from the fact that such movements have so far met with very limited success in Japan, they are also weakened by the fact that they lack part of the attraction of traditional movements. [20] For example, against Karatani’s criticism of the street-fighting of the 60’s, the literary critic Suga Hidemi defends them for the “fun” and the human contact they brought:

I wonder if movements really can continue if such pleasure and fun is lacking. Of course, I believe you are correct when you say that a genuine revolution is when seemingly insignificant changes happen without people noticing and the effect is only retrospectively recognized. But how about the fun of crashing into and shouting at people around you in the process of reaching that goal? (Karatani & Suga 2005:204f)

The price for Karatani’s solution is a diluted concept of social movement. As we have seen, NAM lacked many of the features normally associated with social movements – internal solidarity, confrontations with adversaries, and an overall sense of solidarity with the surrounding society. While NAM proved the possibility of movements using the strategy of exit, the question of the viability of such movements remains in doubt.

Why did Karatani advocate exit as a strategy for movements despite these difficulties? In order to understand this, it is important to pay attention to the continuity relating Yoshimoto and Karatani. This continuity is the legacy of the “failure” of the 60’s. Thanks to this legacy the following dilemma appeared: how could one affirm the right of people to withdraw from politics and yet keep up appearances that one is somehow confronting or resisting power? Being designed as a movement suitable for those disillusioned with politics, commitment and solidarity, NAM can be seen as an attempt to answer that question.

NAM’s legacy and the recovery of voice

In the aftermath of political defeat in the 1960 Ampo struggle, Yoshimoto developed the idea that the exit of “privatized” masses from public involvement did not mean the death of the radical project but represented a new form of challenge to the system. A second watershed in the rhetoric’s development occurred with the renewed upsurge of protest in the late 90’s, when Karatani advocated exit as a strategy for social movements. Despite the differences between the two thinkers – to Karatani it is not the privatized masses as such that threaten the system, but rather movements like NAM that help redirect withdrawals to a Kantian “public” or transcritical space – both see exit as a form of resistance.

I have argued that neither thinker is entirely successful. Yoshimoto’s “masses” do not appear to threaten the present system of “super capitalism” and the possibility of exiting the “trinity of capital, nation and state” through a movement like NAM appears doubtful. Hardt & Negri’s alternative attempt to combine the rhetoric with movement activism by letting terms like exodus include voice and confrontation likewise fails to address those who are disillusioned with such strategies.

With the anti-war movement in 2003 and today’s movement against “precarity”, voice in the form of street demonstrations and street parties has made a recovery among young people in Japan. “Precarity” is a term used to refer to the insecure employment conditions of irregular workers, such as “freeters”, part-timers, dispatch workers or day-laborers. Originating in Italy, it was introduced in Japan in 2005 through the activities of the NPO Remo in Osaka (Sakurada 2006) and popularized by the writer Amamiya Karin (2007) and the General Union for Freeters (Furita Zenpan Rodo Kumiai). The rhetoric of exit may appear to play no role in these movements, but they do share Yoshimoto’s and Karatani’s rejection of tightly knit and hierarchical organizations, their respect for privacy and heterogeneity, and – in the case of the “precarity” movement – their attempt to reach out to marginalized groups such as homeless people, NEETs and social withdrawers. [21] It is interesting to note that several prominent activists and writers in the “precarity” movement – such as Asato Ken, Sugita Shunsuke, Settsu Tadashi, and Yuasa Makoto – are former members of or cooperated with NAM. [22] Despite its own intentions, NAM may have contributed to the blossoming out of today’s voice movements, if not through its rhetoric then because it provided a place for ideas to be exchanged and contacts to be made. In that sense, even if the exits it promoted never constituted effective resistance, they were at least a prelude to resistance." (