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Situations Manifesto

To cel­e­brate the launch of our new web­site, we are repub­lish­ing the Sit­u­a­tions Man­i­festo, which orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the first issue of “Sit­u­a­tions: Project of the Rad­i­cal Imag­i­na­tion” journal,Vol. 1, No.1 (2005)

Stan­ley Aronowitz and Peter Brat­sis, for the edi­to­r­i­al col­lec­tive

It does not mat­ter how long real­ism affords the mind the lux­u­ry of intel­lec­tu­al response; the strik­ing fact is that every fruit­ful sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tion has forced a pro­found revi­sion of the cat­e­gories of the real. What is more, real­ism nev­er pre­cip­i­tates such crises on its own. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary impulse comes from else­where, from the realm of the abstract.

Gas­ton Bachelard, The New Sci­en­tif­ic Spir­it

THE CRISIS

WE ARE IN the midst of a polit­i­cal and con­cep­tu­al cri­sis. Deter­min­is­tic think­ing on the left has con­verged with a gen­er­al sense of pow­er­less­ness, with the view that social rela­tions today are, large­ly, immutable. The con­vic­tion that soci­ety can be changed for the bet­ter, which char­ac­ter­ized left pol­i­tics in ear­li­er decades, has great­ly dimin­ished. From today’s per­spec­tive, there is lit­tle room for social agency. Peo­ple par­tic­i­pate in anti-war march­es with lit­tle hope that they will actu­al­ly suc­ceed. Pol­i­tics increas­ing­ly seems to be fixed and con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries flour­ish. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary projects of the past are seen as naïve, utopi­an, unre­al­is­tic. At best, pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics con­sists in defend­ing the rem­nants of Key­ne­sian poli­cies and civ­il lib­er­ties in the face of the lib­er­al-author­i­tar­i­an pro­grams of the cap­i­tal­ist state. In the Unit­ed States — in par­tial con­trast to West­ern Europe, where every step by the right to dis­man­tle ele­ments of the post-war com­pro­mise between labor and cap­i­tal is met by mass resis­tance — only the anti-war move­ment has mount­ed pop­u­lar protests on a large-scale, and then only spo­rad­i­cal­ly. Trade unions have become ver­i­ta­ble bystanders in their own destruc­tion; once vital social move­ments such as those of fem­i­nism and black free­dom are in dis­ar­ray.

As the right has under­tak­en a frontal assault on the remain­ing insti­tu­tions of the wel­fare state – destroy­ing pro­grams of income secu­ri­ty, threat­en­ing to dis­man­tle the nation­al pen­sion pro­gram, weak­en­ing bank­rupt­cy laws that offered some relief to both work­ing and mid­dle class peo­ple who suf­fer from exces­sive debt, and under­min­ing or fla­grant­ly refus­ing to enforce envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions – it has dis­played an alarm­ing ten­den­cy towards bar­barism in its atti­tude towards human rights. Abu Ghraib was by no means an aber­ra­tion; as recent rev­e­la­tions of at least 26 civil­ian mur­ders by US forces in Iraq indi­cate, bar­barism is now part of nation­al pol­i­cy. Per­haps the term “bar­barism” offends some sen­si­bil­i­ties who per­sist in the view that “it can’t hap­pen here”. Con­sid­er the government’s pro­gram of sur­veil­lance of the polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion in the name of home­land secu­ri­ty; the brazen reg­i­men­ta­tion of chil­dren and teach­ers entailed by No Child Left Behind; and the fias­co of labor law which now pro­tects employ­ers against work­ers. Is the next step the for­ma­tion of a labor front in which “unions” are formed by the gov­ern­ment or by the employ­ers to keep work­ers from orga­niz­ing unions of their own choos­ing?

The Unit­ed States, the last super­pow­er, at least in mil­i­tary terms, is rapid­ly renew­ing its ver­sion of mil­i­tarism, extend­ing the pre­vail­ing poli­cies of mil­i­tary Key­ne­sian­ism, which has marked suc­ces­sive right­ist nation­al gov­ern­ments since 1981. The dif­fer­ence from the U.S. mil­i­tarism of the past is that while the post-war U.S. glob­al expan­sion cor­re­spond­ed to its eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal ascen­dan­cy – and made room for a ris­ing stan­dard of liv­ing, improve­ments in the con­di­tions of blacks and Lati­nos and, dur­ing the Viet­nam war, tried to win the hearts and minds by pro­mot­ing a trun­cat­ed ver­sion of social jus­tice – the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is more dan­ger­ous because mil­i­tarism is a dis­place­ment of the decline of the nation­al econ­o­my and is accom­pa­nied by a Napoleon­ic mis­sion of world dom­i­na­tion in the name of spread­ing “democ­ra­cy”.

As lib­er­als and left­ists scram­ble to put their col­lec­tive fin­gers in the dike, but with­out the capac­i­ty to rethink the struc­ture itself, the right opens up new fronts of class and social war­fare. Most sig­nif­i­cant is that the right has offered a vision of a new life, one intend­ed to cap­ture the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion. It has appro­pri­at­ed and trans­fig­ured the tra­di­tion­al rad­i­cal slo­gans of work­ers’ con­trol and par­tic­i­pa­to­ry democ­ra­cy with a pop­ulism that has con­found­ed its oppo­nents. The con­cept of the “own­er­ship soci­ety” cor­re­sponds to the eco­nom­ic-lib­er­al dis­dain for all forms of col­lec­tive action as well as its sub­ver­sion of the rad­i­cal idea of indi­vid­u­al­i­ty. By ele­vat­ing indi­vid­ual “own­er­ship” to the lev­el of a cul­tur­al ide­al, it has found a pow­er­ful way to jus­ti­fy all forms of dis­man­tle­ment and sug­gest­ed a return to a social atom­ism sim­i­lar to that in clas­si­cal Eng­lish polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy. Iron­i­cal­ly, this turn occurs pre­cise­ly at the moment when the con­cen­tra­tion and cen­tral­iza­tion of cap­i­tal, and its con­comi­tant con­cen­tra­tion of polit­i­cal pow­er, has reached new heights. For, we live in a time when to find a small gro­cery store, a shoe repair shop, or pharmacy—the every­day hall­marks of com­mu­ni­ty life—is as rare as an ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry bot­tle of wine. And, in place of sol­i­dar­i­ty with the work­ing poor, even the work­ing poor are encour­aged to view them­selves as con­sumers who shop at Wal-Mart because their pri­ma­ry val­ue is to seek and secure a bar­gain.

The cri­sis of imag­i­na­tion, which plagues many social move­ments as well as left the­o­ret­i­cal ten­den­cies, is both a symp­tom of and a con­tribut­ing cause of the cur­rent polit­i­cal malaise. The lega­cies of ortho­dox Marx­ism com­bined with the increas­ing­ly ubiq­ui­tous belief in the nat­u­ral­ness of the eco­nom­ic has led to a turn away from the ques­tions of pol­i­tics and of cul­ture, pre­fer­ring to assert some form of eco­nom­ic deter­min­ism. That Cap­i­tal pre­vails, in part, because it can cap­ture the hearts and minds of large seg­ments of the under­ly­ing population—and not only the mid­dle classes—is ignored or cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly denied. At least most of the recent work on glob­al­iza­tion presents itself in images creep­i­ly rem­i­nis­cent of the for­mu­la­tions of the 2nd and 3rd Inter­na­tion­als at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry. In short, it is a moment when the dialec­tic of defeat per­vades the space of social and polit­i­cal thought.

THEORY AND IMAGINATION IN THE AGE OF REDUCTIONIST THOUGHT

When C. Wright Mills wrote The Soci­o­log­i­cal Imag­i­na­tion, the tenor of mod­ern soci­eties was such that he con­fi­dent­ly declared the impend­ing cul­tur­al and ana­lyt­i­cal dom­i­nance of the ‘soci­o­log­i­cal imag­i­na­tion.’ Just as the nat­ur­al sci­ences had once dis­placed spec­u­la­tive phi­los­o­phy and reli­gious mys­ti­cism, so now social sci­ence was dis­plac­ing a spe­cial­ized, for­mal­is­tic and mech­a­nis­tic ‘sci­ence.’ This increas­ing­ly sus­pect tech­nol­o­gized sci­ence had cre­at­ed the means for world destruc­tion and was, accord­ing to Mills, alien­at­ing and inca­pable of address­ing the fun­da­men­tal con­cerns of human beings. Under this sce­nario, cat­e­gories derived from the nat­ur­al sci­ences which had been cen­tral to social analy­sis, the idea of ‘human nature’ for exam­ple, as well as the deter­min­is­tic under­tones of the nat­ur­al sci­ences, were in the process of being over­turned and replaced. More imag­i­na­tive and rig­or­ous under­stand­ings of human soci­eties would emerge as a result of this shift in the dom­i­nant mode of inquiry.

Look­ing back upon Mills’s argu­ments near­ly fifty years lat­er, one can­not but mar­vel at the stark rever­sal that has tak­en place. Micro­bi­ol­o­gy and the genome now reign supreme as the foun­da­tion for under­stand­ing human soci­eties. Every­thing from exces­sive cred­it-card debt to bulim­ia and sui­cide can pre­sum­ably be reduced to genet­ic caus­es. More­over, our lives are increas­ing­ly sat­u­rat­ed by and depen­dent upon tech­nolo­gies in ways that even Mills could not have antic­i­pat­ed. The virtues of per­son­al com­put­ers, satel­lites, mobile phones, CAT-scan machines, and so on, have large­ly erased any anx­i­eties and uncer­tain­ties that accom­pa­nied the dawn of the nuclear age. As far as science’s fail­ure to address the fun­da­men­tal con­cerns of humans, this still may be the case but, rather than turn­ing to socio-polit­i­cal thought, a resur­gence of reli­gios­i­ty and mys­ti­cism has marked con­tem­po­rary soci­eties. This turn has man­i­fest­ed itself in the increas­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of Chris­t­ian fun­da­men­tal­ism, astrol­o­gy, Kab­bala, Bud­dhism, and a pletho­ra of oth­er mys­ti­cisms and new-age doc­trines.

In this con­text, where a great host of com­plex social and indi­vid­ual real­i­ties are reduced to bio­chem­istry on the one hand and/or the super­nat­ur­al on the oth­er, social sci­ence as a whole and rad­i­cal polit­i­cal thought in par­tic­u­lar has failed to pro­vide much of an alter­na­tive. The reduc­tion­is­tic think­ing that per­me­ates con­tem­po­rary soci­ety is more than reflect­ed in the cur­rent state of social thought. On the one hand, the­o­rists such as John Rawls and Michael Walz­er, among many oth­ers, attempt to reduce pol­i­tics to an exer­cise in applied phi­los­o­phy. Nor­ma­tive ques­tions revolv­ing around the issues of jus­tice and war, for exam­ple, are tech­ni­cal­ized and pre­sent­ed as belong­ing to the realm of experts. How should resources be dis­trib­uted? Should we go to war? Nor­ma­tive polit­i­cal the­o­rists have assert­ed that there are right and wrong answers and that they know what the cor­rect answers are. For­tu­nate­ly or unfor­tu­nate­ly, as these nor­ma­tive the­o­rists craft and recraft their schemas and proofs, real pol­i­tics con­tin­ues unfazed. This elit­ist and futile ten­den­cy with­in polit­i­cal and social thought harkens back to the Pla­ton­ic tra­di­tion and, in the last instance, posits some extra-social realm of truth, be it nature or god. For all the trees that have been sac­ri­ficed to the­o­ries of jus­tice, they have offered no alter­na­tive to the reduc­tion­ism that plagues mod­ern think­ing nor have they explained any social phe­nom­e­na or recast any social cat­e­go­ry.

On the oth­er hand, more ana­lyt­i­cal­ly focused social sci­en­tif­ic thought, although cer­tain­ly more use­ful than its nor­ma­tive coun­ter­part, has also been very sus­cep­ti­ble to reduc­tion­is­tic think­ing. Ratio­nal choice the­o­ry, struc­tur­al-func­tion­al­ism, behav­ior­ism; a mul­ti­tude of social and polit­i­cal phe­nom­e­na are reduced to a few stan­dard caus­es. Even, if not espe­cial­ly, in left the­o­ry this is the case. In spite of the attempts with­in Marx­ist and allied thought in the 1930’s and 1960’s to come to a the­o­ry of pol­i­tics, to an under­stand­ing of the polit­i­cal that did not reduce it to a sim­ple reflec­tion of the econ­o­my or the will of some cap­i­tal­ists, rad­i­cal thought today has again slipped towards reduc­tion­ism. The con­tri­bu­tions of Lenin, Lux­em­burg, Gram­sci, Mao, Sartre, Ben­jamin, Lefeb­vre, Althuss­er, Cas­to­ri­adis, and so on, are not for­got­ten but their over­lap­ping projects remain derailed. Look­ing to the con­tri­bu­tions with­in the left today, we see that sig­nif­i­cant and pop­u­lar authors such as Immanuel Waller­stein, Noam Chom­sky, and Anto­nio Negri take pol­i­tics to large­ly be reflec­tions of eco­nom­ic process­es and inter­ests. For Waller­stein and world-sys­tems the­o­ry, the forms of pol­i­tics, polit­i­cal iden­ti­ties, and polit­i­cal con­flicts can all be explained by way of the world-sys­tem and the work­ings of cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion and its divi­sion of labor. With­in world-sys­tems the­o­ry, even hyper-deter­min­is­tic and qua­si-astro­log­i­cal con­cepts like Kon­drati­eff waves retain valid­i­ty. For Negri and Michael Hardt, cap­i­tal­ist glob­al­iza­tion brings about the reter­ri­to­ri­al­iza­tion of polit­i­cal space, the polit­i­cal log­ic of empire, and cre­ates its own gravedig­ger in the form of the ‘mul­ti­tude’. Even in the very pop­u­lar and great­ly respect­ed work of Karl Polanyi, the polit­i­cal move­ments and shifts that allow for the emer­gence of the cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket­place are often pre­sent­ed as lit­tle more than pol­i­tics con­form­ing to the needs of the econ­o­my. One is hard pressed to find a neg­a­tive word regard­ing Polanyi’s work and it is usu­al­ly pre­sent­ed as a key in the shift to under­stand­ing the agency of pol­i­tics with­in cap­i­tal­ism but, despite its many virtues, his argu­ment on the polit­i­cal often reduces it to a reflec­tion of the base. Pol­i­tics may help con­sti­tute the econ­o­my but, as Polanyi presents it, it is respond­ing to the func­tion­al needs of the cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my as it does so. Whether dis­cussing the enclo­sures or the Corn Laws, the impres­sion giv­en is that these were nec­es­sary and unavoid­able from the point of view of the econ­o­my.

This reduc­tion­ism is also char­ac­ter­is­tic of the work by Chom­sky. In book after book, Chom­sky presents the eco­nom­ic inter­ests and inter­per­son­al net­works that under­pin the actions of the state and its allied insti­tu­tions. Politi­cians togeth­er with oil com­pa­ny exec­u­tives and media moguls bam­boo­zle the mass­es. Chom­sky sees his task as uncov­er­ing this process and pro­vid­ing us with the ‘real sto­ry’. The prob­lem with such a project is that, even if they do not know the specifics, the dom­i­nat­ed class­es already know that they have lit­tle pow­er. They know that wealthy cor­po­rate elites have an inor­di­nate amount of con­trol in pol­i­tics. They know that, here and around the world, the sub­al­tern class­es suf­fer at the hands of eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal elites. As Leonard Cohen puts it, ‘every­body knows that the dice are loaded’. Retired steel­work­ers who lose their health ben­e­fits do not need to read Chom­sky in order to under­stand the polit­i­cal reper­cus­sions of eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty nor do dis­placed Chi­nese farm­ers or Brazil­ian house­maids.

Indeed, as Michael Moore’s Fahren­heit 9/11 made its way across the Unit­ed States lead­ing up to the 2004 elec­tion, we saw that ‘the facts’ did lit­tle to trans­form the real­i­ties of Amer­i­can soci­ety. As the epi­graph from Gas­ton Bachelard argues, real­ism and ‘the facts’ do not in them­selves bring about a trans­for­ma­tion of the real. Although Chom­sky and his ‘real sto­ries’ are impor­tant and have a use­ful role as a kind of left reportage, they are insuf­fi­cient as trans­for­ma­tive knowl­edge. More gen­er­al­ly, the eco­nom­ic reduc­tion­ism of much of rad­i­cal thought today cor­re­sponds very well with the type of under­stand­ing that many with­in the dom­i­nat­ed class­es already have of soci­ety. Eco­nom­ic deter­min­ism pos­es no chal­lenge to the reduc­tion­is­tic notions of causal­i­ty that dom­i­nate pop­u­lar thought; there is no room for pop­u­lar agency and the rad­i­cal imag­i­na­tion.

THE PROJECT

The project of Sit­u­a­tions is to address this lapse of the rad­i­cal imag­i­na­tion in both left the­o­ry and in pop­u­lar con­scious­ness. It aims to explore the social con­di­tions and lived expe­ri­ences that have led to this malaise and to sup­port expla­na­tions that do not reduce polit­i­cal phe­nom­e­na to a reflec­tion. Sit­u­a­tions will exam­ine the fields of aca­d­e­m­ic and cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion in order to iden­ti­fy the sys­temic caus­es of this inabil­i­ty to break with lived expe­ri­ence. Sit­u­a­tions will pub­lish crit­i­cal assess­ments of rad­i­cal polit­i­cal thought with an eye towards iden­ti­fy­ing that which is still use­ful and that which is insuf­fi­cient for under­stand­ing what is new and dif­fer­ent in pol­i­tics and cul­ture today. Sit­u­a­tions will pub­lish crit­i­cal exam­i­na­tions of social move­ments and pop­u­lar attempts to guide polit­i­cal change. Sit­u­a­tions will fos­ter modes of think­ing that rec­og­nize the cre­ative role that soci­ety plays in its own pro­duc­tion. In oppo­si­tion to sim­ple deter­minisms, Sit­u­a­tions will attempt to show the con­tin­gen­cies and pecu­liar­i­ties, the over/undetermined nature, of polit­i­cal phe­nom­e­na. This is not viewed as sim­ply a method­olog­i­cal pre­cept but as a prag­mat­ic and polit­i­cal neces­si­ty in the attempt to over­come reduc­tion­ist thought. Our under­stand­ing of pol­i­tics is so her­met­i­cal­ly sealed, so free of con­tin­gen­cies, that very few of us, if any, have any real hope for sub­stan­tive change or a rev­o­lu­tion­ary break. Sit­u­a­tions will attempt to bring the the­o­ry of pol­i­tics and ques­tions of strat­e­gy back into the fore of left think­ing.

Mind­ful of its role as a jour­nal, Sit­u­a­tions will attempt to actu­al­ize its agency through cre­ativ­i­ty in ideas and con­cepts. Sit­u­a­tions con­sid­ers the lim­it to agency today to be self-imposed, an out­come of our own paral­y­sis and lack of orig­i­nal­i­ty in the face of a rapid­ly chang­ing and seem­ing­ly auto­mat­ed world. We will search out the rev­o­lu­tion­ary impulse that comes from the abstract, from break­ing with lived expe­ri­ence and seek­ing new ways of under­stand­ing and sit­u­at­ing our­selves with­in soci­ety.

BASIC TASKS

  1. Iden­ti­fy­ing what it is about con­tem­po­rary soci­ety that leads to the per­cep­tion of hope­less­ness and deter­min­ism.
  2. Exam­in­ing the field of acad­e­mia and intel­lec­tu­al pro­duc­tion and iden­ti­fy­ing the sys­temic caus­es of its inabil­i­ty to break with reduc­tion­ism and their own scholas­tic ten­den­cies
  3. Cri­tiquing the dom­i­nant trends with­in Left the­o­ry towards economism and scholas­ti­cism.
  4. Start­ing an open dis­cus­sion toward build­ing a new the­o­ry of pol­i­tics to address the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. Actu­al­iz­ing a crit­i­cal dis­cus­sion of key con­cepts and pre­cepts of Left the­o­ry, and ask­ing what con­cepts are still ana­lyt­i­cal­ly and strate­gi­cal­ly use­ful and what areas need new ideas and dis­cus­sion.
  5. Explo­ration of core ques­tions regard­ing the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice, polit­i­cal strat­e­gy and political/social move­ments. Specif­i­cal­ly, an analy­sis of the post 9/11 prac­tice of the anti-glob­al­iza­tion move­ment. We need to ask the ques­tion about a new “his­tor­i­cal bloc” and we need a search­ing dis­cus­sion of the fate of the “new” social move­ments at the turn of the 21st cen­tu­ry. How to address the enor­mous suc­cess of social con­ser­vatism in putting fem­i­nists on the defen­sive? What are the influ­ences that have led to the vir­tu­al silence on the widen­ing eco­nom­ic and social gap between the black mid­dle class and the black work­ing class? Why has there been so lit­tle out­cry against the bur­geon­ing unem­ploy­ment and unem­ploy­ment afflict­ing wider and wider social lay­ers?
  6. The decline of the labor move­ment. Why? And is there a new labor move­ment in process? This ques­tion address­es the new forms of labor strug­gle in the Unit­ed States and abroad, and the prospects for glob­al labor sol­i­dar­i­ty to deal with cap­i­tal mobil­i­ty, state repres­sion of work­ers’ strug­gles and declin­ing liv­ing stan­dards.
  7. Defin­ing “Class” “the peo­ple” “mul­ti­tude” how are they dif­fer­ent? How are they sim­i­lar? Here we will explore the ques­tion of the “new” anar­chism.
  8. Fac­ing of the most severe eco­log­i­cal cri­sis in human his­to­ry, why is there no seri­ous dis­cus­sion in left cir­cles con­cern­ing its cen­tral­i­ty? Why is the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment unable to mobi­lize protest and resis­tance against the life-threat­en­ing poli­cies of West­ern gov­ern­ments, and espe­cial­ly the Bush admin­is­tra­tion?
  9. How is it that the right has effec­tive­ly (in the advanced coun­tries) been able to mobi­lize “the peo­ple” for its own pur­pos­es. We want to once again raise the Reichi­an ques­tion of libid­i­nal econ­o­my in the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. Why has the right cap­tured the pol­i­tics of hope? Why is the left con­fined to debunk­ing cap­i­tal­ist iconog­ra­phy
  10. Read­ing the cur­rent tem­per through exam­i­na­tion of pop­u­lar cul­ture (music, film, tele­vi­sion and lit­er­a­ture).
  11. Explor­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of the new media, e.g. the inter­net as a means of orga­niz­ing and a means to cre­ate a new pub­lic-sphere; the ques­tion of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy as a new sen­si­bil­i­ty that has impli­ca­tions for pol­i­tics.
  12. Attempt­ing to dis­cov­er a pos­si­bil­i­ty in the dynam­ics of inter­na­tion­al law to sig­nif­i­cant­ly con­front the move­ments of empire or is this just anoth­er left/liberal fan­ta­sy.
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