This is an initial attempt at working out and synthesizing some thoughts on an excellent book by a friend of mine, Rodrigo Nunes. I think it relates to a few people’s projects, so my focus here has been mainly to recapitulate some main arguments, but I’m planning to do a little bit more work and publish this somewhere pretty soon, so I’d appreciate thoughts and criticisms, especially from people who are honing in on specific contemporary movements.
Alain Badiou’s provocative The Rebirth of History poses some interesting challenges for anyone wishing to weigh in on the revolutionary wagers taking place around the world since at least late 2010. One of the central assumptions driving Badiou’s metaphors and argumentative shifts is that these wagers are usefully categorized under the general heading of riots. This move allows him the neat distinctions between immediate riots (characterized by unrest and state violence, but ambivalent in terms of progressive potential), latent riots (the potentiality for an immediate riot within affluent western countries) and historical riots (an immediate riot that has undergone a transformation from nihilistic and chaotic outbursts of violence to a pre-political riot capable of undergoing progressive organization, expressing the general will, and finally enacting real changes within what exists in the world). Badiou centers his attention around the task of organization, which he rightly defines as “the problem of politics par excellence.” (42) However, Badiou’s characterization of these revolutionary wagers as riots also allows him a heuristic around which he is able to play out some of his central concerns regarding the relationship of philosophy, politics, and truth, sometimes to the detriment of obscuring actual commonalities or real differences within the organization of revolutionary events, such as the fact that in Spain and the United States, protests and riots have been generative of new networks of collaboration, whereas in Egypt and Brazil, new protests and riots have been subsumed as nodes into already-existing networks.
Such a fact is not simply trivial, but rather an essential type of knowledge necessary for bringing theoretical reflection to bear on the contemporary moment. Although Badiou’s book does not simply use the recent revolutionary uprisings as mere occasions for promulgating his particular philosophy, he runs the risk of setting himself up as the explanatory vanguard, which obscures the potential efficacy of his otherwise insightful work. We are thus not surprised to learn, in the ‘doctrinal summary’ towards the end of the book, that riots are “a still indistinct language,” (87) one that it would seem only the philosopher is capable of arranging into a coherent order with emancipatory potential, or what Badiou refers to as “the power of the generic” animating progressive organization. (78) Badiou’s arguments ultimately have the effect of turning turning the riots into material to be formed into something unified. Again, Badiou does not entirely impose his own theoretical frameworks on the riots, claiming “we must carry out […] a patient, meticulous inquiry with people in search of what […] will be affirmed by the movement’s irreducible fraction — namely, some statements. Statements that cannot be dissolved into Western inclusion. When they exist, these statements are easily recognizable. And these new statements are a precondition for conceiving a process of organization of figures of collective action, which will signal their political becoming.” (54-55)
Although Badiou wards off the type of analysis that would suffocate the global uprisings into western categories, he does finally insist that in order to be efficacious, any uprising must be shaped and disciplined into a political truth that keeps fidelity to the event that instantiated it. In the last instance, such a line of argument occludes the ways in which these global movements already contain elements of organization. By praising organization, Badiou misses the in-flux and in-between real developments within organization already taking place.
Such a weak point in left theory is what Rodrigo Nunes addresses well in his short essay Organization of the Organizationless: Collective Action after Networks. As the title indicates, Nunes’ point of entry into present debates is a rejection of the simple narrative that the chaotic uprisings would only benefit from organization. “First and foremost among the things that will have been so obscured is precisely the fact that what is characteristic about today’s movements is not the absence of organization, but a mode of organization that can be described in its own right.” (9-10) Nunes’ book, available as part of the new collaboration between Mute Magazine and Post-Media Lab, introduces a concise and accessible grammar of these recent movements.
Much like Badiou, Nunes is critical of the fixation on certain elements of these recent movements, such as horizontality and prefiguration. However, unlike Badiou, Nunes is critical of these ideas because their concrete function in the movements themselves have been as regulative ideas rather than goals in themselves, or more importantly, descriptions of the organization of the organizationless. The point of providing such descriptions, according to Nunes, is that the organizational and strategic solutions to current problems will come from within already existing modes of organization. The point of introducing a grammar concerning the recent movements is thus, prior to any attempt to amplify them or codify them into further emancipatory ends, to actually comprehend them so that the space for further questioning and strategizing can be opened up. Rather than start from the presumption that prefiguration or horizontality are antidotes to outdated modes of organization, or that recent movements are a promising but muddled mess of ideas, Nunes explores the manner in which these events fall outside of binary oppositions, and argues strongly against the notion that to criticize or relativize one side of this binary scheme is not to fall into the opposite. In short, by understanding the already-existing mixed states of organization within contemporary politics, we can begin to negotiate them and balance issues such as openness and closure.
In order to signal the ambiguity at the heart of referring to the uprisings, riots, or wagers of the last few years as “movements,” Nunes invokes the simple question ‘what is the movement?,’ posed by The Free Association during the height of the alterglobalization movement. According to Nunes, the simultaneous rise (and later fall) in popularity of the term multitude, taken from Hardt and Negri, to describe the subject of the movements, owed its evocative power to its oscillation between the singular and plural. However, the gains in evocative power also mark weaknesses in explanatory power. “Anyone who, when asked about the last decade, replied only ‘the multitude’, though perhaps not wrong, would be ultimately not saying much.” (16) Nunes links this weakness to Hardt and Negri’s complete distaste for mediation, which comes through especially in Commonwealth. As Nunes perceptively notes, the completely negative connotations of mediation signals a major problem with employing a singular-plural conception such as multitude or movement to categorize events of the present: “by blurring the internal differentiation of what it describes, it blurs the interactions among its components, which is where coordination and decision making take place.” (16) As the subtitle of the book indicates, Nunes will shift the prospects for strategy and collective action to the language of networks, but simply turning from ‘movement’ to ‘network’ does little to address this problem.
In order to move beyond the perpetual oscillation between the one and the many, Nunes introduces two terms at the heart of his book: network-system and network-movement. A network-system is a system of different networks, encompassing individuals, groupings, social media accounts, physical spaces, etc., “which constitute so many interacting layers that can neither be reduced to nor superposed on each other.” (20) Since the layers themselves as well as the interactions between layers are dynamic, the validity of any description of a network-system is subject to time. The advantage of speaking of network-systems is that it allows us to look beyond whether those in a movement explicitly share political self-understandings in order to be able to picture a broader ‘moving’ of social relations. According to Nunes, what justifies labeling something as part of a network-system is a reference to an event. Events do not create network-systems ex nihilo, but rather transform previous network-systems by creating or destroying various ties, reconfiguring interactions, and so on.
If the network-system provides a broad conceptualization for the spread of mass contemporary movements, network-movement serves as a tool for a more fine-grained analysis of the present conjuncture. Nunes defines a network-movement as simultaneously an act of self-recognition that takes place when people begin to refer to a “movement,” as well as the layers of relations referred to as a movement. This nesting of expanded self-awareness helps differentiate those within a network-system who demonstrate more conscious political efforts and expressions without biasing the entire discussion of the present in favor of members of a movement with a more explicit self-understanding. By beginning the conversation with a network-system rather than simply a movement (or we might add, a riot), we are able to gain traction in understanding movements within the network-system as well as the interactions between them without searching in vain for pure models of organization.
Nunes’ model provides several key advantages. First, the network-system still maintains the emphasis present in Badiou and others on the central importance of an event for delineating the trajectories of various movements. Since his account presumes a substantial amount of dynamic interaction within the movements making up a network-system, Nunes’ theorization of the event offers some room for the presence of varying degrees of more quotidian events rather than the magisterial, theological overtones sometimes plaguing Badiou’s accounts. Due to the “clearing ground” nature of his text, Nunes does not elaborate much on what makes an event that creates a new network-system, which makes such a discussion fruitful ground for follow-up work.
In addition, Nunes’ analysis opens up an understanding of organization as a continuum of degrees of stabilization, formalization, and consistency. Stabilization denotes the tacit sedimentation of rules and structures ranging anywhere from an influential Facebook page serving as a hub to defined membership processes for the network-movement. Formalization registers the development of explicitly stated rules and structures for decision-making or leadership, and consistency accounts for the increasing discipline of the movement, or its ordered growth and capacity to produce binding decisions. This continuum of organization leads Nunes to two important categorizations: distributed leadership and the vanguard-function of hubs. Nunes offers the term vanguard-function in order to describe a hub or cluster of hubs within a network that outpaces its ‘normal’ functioning and/or the functioning of other ‘normally’ highly-connected hubs. Since the vanguard-function is subject to time, it is usefully differentiated from the teleological notion of vanguardism present in much of the Marxist tradition; although the vanguard-function of a hub or cluster of hubs still helps to explain the leading cause behind a set of effects, it is not determined by some reference to historical laws. Similarly, the notion of distributed leadership displaces the fixation on whether or not contemporary movements are leaderless or flatly horizontal. Since networks are constitutively unable to be totally flat and transparent, but are often represented as at least potentially flat, distributed leadership helps account for the extent of democracy or democratic potential within a network. Nunes defines distributed leadership as the combination of a topological property (i.e., the fact that there are hubs beneath a hub or node) with two dynamic hubs or nodes. Since both the vanguard-function and distributed leadership are subject to a network-system, judgments about them are subject to time as well. As Nunes notes, however, “the de facto impossibility of totalization does not abolish the need for partial syntheses that try and apprehend [the network-system] in order to discern possible courses of action.” (42) Indeed, the subjecteness to time of a network-system foregrounds the urgent question of strategic and tactical decisions even further.
Finally, Nunes’ book crucially identifies the task of a continuous creation and organization of the commons that is at the heart of contemporary resistances to capitalism. Since network-movements take place within a dynamic system, the forms of this resistance as well as the forms of created commons are not given in advance. They are not subject to guarantees and require further unification and organization in order to be developed and defended. As Nunes summarizes, “how broad one’s conception of the network-movement is determines how comprehensive picture one has of the overall field of struggle, the direct and indirect interactions within it, the impacts that actions might have, latent connections to be developed, ties to be strengthened, differences to be taken into account, struggles and objectives to be prioritized, points of leverage, areas in which intervention is called for.” (29) With a deft knowledge of contemporary movements and the acumen to describe developments in organization with neither normative hand-wringing nor overtheorization, Nunes has helpfully cleared ground for further discussion. In this short, well-crafted essay, Nunes delivers a grammar adequate to contemporary movements, and vital for the continuing importance of careful reflection for the flourishing of contemporary radical politics.