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Magazine

25 December 2017
The Exception is the State

Jeffrey Swartz

I am writing these words on the eve of a vote which I believe should not take place and is the least legitimate I have ever witnessed in any society I have ever lived in. The fact that it has been enthusiastically celebrated across the political, social and cultural spectrum, makes its acceptance even harder to assume. Rendition is one thing, happy acquiescence quite another. I say this from the abstentionist or blank vote position that I have consolidated in recent years (“I’m going to need at least four hours to abstain on the 21st” – my joke of the month), in full agreement with the “No nos representan” [They don’t represent us] 15M slogan, a phrase forged from a century and a half of systemic critique. One of the most foolish comments I ever heard was from a culturite involved in the acampadas who insisted he had taken part to ensure his right to vote, when the entire movement had raised fundamental doubts about the political logic of voting. Living proof that it is possible to wear the mask of an activist and be a bit player on centre stage, with no idea of what battle you are waging.

There is no reason why the appearance of new political parties aiming to capitalise on that discontent with the system should alter the terms of its validity. They did not represent us before, and they do not now: nothing has changed, and nothing will. Unless you believe that certain parliamentarians represent a fundamental anthropological break, that they were one kind of human being before and quite another after. Against the terms of party politics dependent on the vote, typified by the language of maximums and claims to exclusivity and the most spectacular demagogy on the market, the idea is to clear off the common domain of politics, encroached upon by private interests (including that of leftist parties, let’s make that clear). To ensure a space, a tangible and intangible terrain, an undetermined domain of potentiality, a political reserve for a society yearning to be formed but as yet amorphic. A space where the political might be exercised by the pieces of the polis in free conjunction and not appropriated by hierarchical forms of representation, sacralised by the vote.

Still, these elections to the Catalan parliament, even accepting abstention as part of an activated and wilfully constructive exodus, as Paulo Virno might imagine it, were a ready invitation to initiate oneself in abstentionist rites. The forced dismissal of a legitimately elected legislature, the coercive and arbitrary imprisonment of some of its cabinet, the occupation of the Catalan structure of political decision-making and the subsequent calling of elections by the central Spanish government, circumventing every fundamental aspect of Catalan autonomy, plus militarised police violence and judicial disdain—this is an administrative coup d’état designed to endure in time, making it easy to resist. Coups are illegitimate, emptying of legitimacy everything that derives from them. In this case the will of the current intervention is to return the totality of the Catalan political arena to the conditions of the Constitution of 1978, confirming in the meanwhile the fraudulent nature of the Estado de las autonomías [the state of autonomous communities], where no single part has any real autonomy whatsoever. If everything can be intervened, everything is constitutionally threatened with state violence, and there is no limit to arbitrary central power. In Spain, all constituent parts are essentially wards of the state, submitted to its guardianship.

Easy to resist, I say, meaning in the form of a boycott, though very specific in its conception. A boycott, or choral incantation of non-acceptance, though not stranding us in negation. Artists and other cultural agents should understand such things, since they are so readily boycotted and marginalised by economic and political power, which denigrates them systematically. They ought to know how to turn the tables, and very often do, in their work and their passionate commitment to it. All efforts to reject and displace arbitrary, non-consensual authority and replace it should not be judged in terms of proposed replacement parameters, since we are talking about a (probably anarchist) cultural model, set up this way: on one hand there is everything we cannot accept at all, and never will, because it obliges human beings to deny the best of ourselves, including our creative will; on the other hand, there is the conviction that what comes next, by way of replacement, will need time and certain processes and respect for its participating agents. The minimum we can do is to clear the playing field, at least to ensure that those voices and wills that have been systematically left off it be part of the newly found equation.

What I actually had in mind, expectantly, in the days Article 155 came into effect, was the constitutive potential of culture. The constitution of a de facto self-governance exercised by every cultural organization in Catalonia and those cultural agents they claim to represent, plus everyone else who perceived him or herself as such, gathered in free association and acting in consequence to the vacuum caused by the liquidation of the maximum executive organism overseeing Catalan culture, the conselleria. Today the Conselleria de Cultura is merely a secondary name tag hung below the higher-ranking official title of a PP official running the show from some distant office. The conselleria is a cadaver made zombie by the insistence of some of treating it as if it were alive when in fact it is dead. Why pretend otherwise?

I never imagined the current intervention would have been accepted so passively. I admit I was thinking back to the cultural committees set up during the Paris Commune, which essentially ran Parisian cultural institutions from the bottom up during the months the communards were able to hold out. They included artists and artisans, exercised decision-making through assemblies, and certain individuals were recruited to provide leadership, most notably Courbet. An idea not so different from the one I imagined a few years back when a colleague encouraged me to apply for the direction of a certain art institution: what exactly is impeding us from proposing and executing a collective and non-individualised direction of a Catalan cultural entity (museum, theatre, festival, for instance), especially given the relative dissatisfaction most of the sector feels with the individualised forms of leadership imposed on us? What are we supposed to do with our experience in doing things collectively and in assembly, which have also become the buzzwords of leading organisations in the management of creative projects? Isn’t the individualised—and fully masculine—direction currently being imposed meant to correspond to the vertical managerial models favoured by the impresarios crowding their foundations, patrons and boards?

No proposal has arisen. You would have thought, after decades of boasting of non-hierarchical decision-making processes, of operative participated assemblies, of the coherence of cultural practice, represented by bringing egalitarian gender-free values into the very heart of cultural coalitions, that some proposal would have been made to liberate Catalan culture anew. Some of our leading cultural projects are bound to such principles, but in superficial fashion, it would seem, not at heart. We had been led to believe that the ethics of practice the cultural sector had so proudly flaunted, to the point of consecrating it in drafted constituent statutes and highlighting them in official reports, was something more than mere posturing or political hypocrisy. We did not hear of any such self-constitutive initiative (instead, in what seemed to me to an unequivocal acceptance of the magnitude of the defeat, the visual arts sector ended up organising an occupation of Arts Santa Mònica, proclaiming themselves veritable squatters of a cultural institution, pointing at the architecture sector as its main rival. One of the most extreme cases of the banalization of political action from the culture sector we have heard of in years.

When we say Article 155 should be easy to resist, we mean in the form of a boycott of its dictates, for example, which in any case would simply mean continuing to live a good part of one’s life as is. All you would have to do is sever the strings that made that puppet show you did not want to take part in possible, strings leading from our passions and wills to the organisms, devices and machinations of State power. A boycott in the form of on the spot exodus into internal exile, domestic even; a choice to not be part and parcel, to not be an accomplice, yet not ending in acquiescence. Boycotts and abstentions make no sense if they are not accompanied by a firm commitment to building a society in every sense political, without the need to offer ourselves up as sacrificial lambs to keep the ogre of the state well fed.

Easy, assuming that going on with one’s life and everything concerning it is not hard, constructively political in love, creativity, solidarity and friendship (the concerns of the Situationists, no less), with the sole exception of that part that involves placing a piece of paper in a ballot box and sitting back so smugly. That’s the part to quit. We are talking about leaving most of our lives intact, even on a bad day, just to get a bit of fresh air. Air to be breathed into other things. Intact to be activated politically without having to recur to the most discredited and perverse way of designating political relevance. It should have been easy not to vote, but it was not to be.

Jeffrey Swartz

Articles

25 December 2017

The Exception is the State

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