Communicability & the Police

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By Hannes Charen, January 2012

One as­pect of the Oc­cupy Move­ment ini­tially latched onto by the main­stream me­dia was its ap­par­ent lack of spe­cif­ic de­mands and ab­sence of something like a uni­fied mes­sage, one, per­haps, re­sem­bling those oth­er mar­gin­al polit­ic­al ‘move­ments’ like the well-fun­ded right wing Tea Party. This de­gen­er­ated in­to dis­missive cri­ti­cism, in­deed as evid­ence that such a move­ment should not, or even could not be taken ser­i­ously. Un­der­ly­ing this as­sump­tion is the idea that in or­der to en­gage in polit­ics in the United States one must either identi­fy with a polit­ic­al party or take a crit­ic­al stance to­wards one of the two ma­jor parties—the bin­ary which has of course only re­af­firmed mono­pol­ized power the US over the past cen­tury.

Ac­cord­ing to this prin­ciple, in or­der for the main­stream me­dia to re­cog­nize a polit­ic­al move­ment it must be one situ­ated with­in the polit­ic­al dis­course of neo-lib­er­al eco­nom­ics which equates demo­cracy with cap­it­al, a po­s­i­tion rep­res­en­ted by both dom­in­at­ing parties in this coun­try. In oth­er words, if a move­ment ar­tic­u­lates a cri­ti­cism out­side of a spe­cif­ic policy or a par­tic­u­lar party line, and in­stead at­tacks the very found­a­tions of the eco­nom­ic/polit­ic­al sys­tem as such—one which has only be­come in­creas­ingly mono­lith­ic, and one whose con­tra­dic­tions have be­come only all too ob­vi­ous, it is either not taken ser­i­ously or simply dis­missed as a fringe group. If ac­know­ledged on any level, however, it is promptly labeled a ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tion, as the Oc­cupy Move­ment re­cently was by the po­lice in Lon­don.1 “[A] sec­tion headed ‘Do­mest­ic’ was ded­ic­ated wholly to the activ­it­ies of the Oc­cupy en­camp­ments and singled out anti-cap­it­al­ists as a cause for con­cern.”2

The con­fla­tion of cor­por­ate in­terests and polit­ic­al policy, on a loc­al and a glob­al scale, res­ults in a lo­gic which views an at­tack on a cor­por­a­tion as an at­tack on a coun­try and there­fore on the ex­pli­cit val­ues in­scribed in its con­sti­tu­tion such as liberty, free­dom of ex­pres­sion and hu­man rights. So the at­tack in the name of food sov­er­eignty by the Za­patis­tas in Mex­ico on Monsanto’s fields in the 1990s be­comes an at­tack on the so-called sov­er­eignty of the United States and there­fore the Za­patis­tas are con­sidered in­sur­gents.3 The no­tions of free­dom, demo­cracy and justice there­fore lose all sense of ori­ent­a­tion and be­come ali­en­ated from the world in which they are con­cretely based (i.e. liberty or free­dom from op­pres­sion, a concept which clearly pre­sup­poses rad­ic­al equal­ity).

In re­volu­tion we ap­pear to each oth­er dif­fer­ently — in a way which no news tem­plate and no party line knows how to an­ti­cip­ate, nor can find au­thor­iz­a­tion to rep­res­ent.

In oth­er words, if the Oc­cupy Move­ment is con­cerned with the per­sist­ence of polit­ic­al com­munity in a truly glob­al world, one in which na­tion­al bor­ders (as well as the false polit­ic­al bin­ary ex­pressed by the two parties) be­come in­creas­ingly mean­ing­less and one in which con­di­tions of cor­por­ate dom­in­a­tion in con­junc­tion with neo-lib­er­al ideo­logy4 are so en­trenched that any­thing re­sem­bling the act of do­ing polit­ics simply re­mains ab­sent, then it ar­tic­u­lates a re­volu­tion in the very in­tim­ate space of the senses. In re­volu­tion, or a move­ment oc­cupy­ing the ac­tu­al sphere of polit­ics, which is to say both the prax­is and the poies­is of polit­ics, we ap­pear to each oth­er dif­fer­ently — com­mun­al space emerges dif­fer­ently — in a way which no news tem­plate and no party line is cap­able of an­ti­cip­at­ing, nor can find au­thor­iz­a­tion to rep­res­ent. On this level aes­thet­ics and polit­ics are en­tangled.

In­spired by Schiller’s eight­eenth-cen­tury med­it­a­tions on aes­thet­ics and polit­ics, the con­tem­por­ary philo­soph­er Jacques Rancière fo­cuses on polit­ic­al res­ist­ance, or what he terms dis­sensus in aes­thet­ics as the site of a po­ten­tial new “hu­man com­munity”. Part of what makes Schiller’s Let­ters re­volu­tion­ary for Rancière is that they un­der­mine the form­al sub­mis­sion of aes­thet­ic ex­per­i­ence un­der the cat­egor­ies of the un­der­stand­ing.

Aes­thet­ic free play and the uni­ver­sal­ity of the judg­ment of taste define a new kind of liberty and of equal­ity… Aes­thet­ic ex­per­i­ence is that of an un­pre­ced­en­ted sen­sori­um in which the hier­arch­ies are ab­ol­ished that struc­ture sens­ory ex­per­i­ence.”5

Rancière is not the first to per­ceive the con­nec­tion between aes­thet­ic judg­ment and com­mu­nic­ab­il­ity in polit­ics. Though un­for­tu­nately nev­er fully real­ized, Han­nah Aren­dt in­ten­ded to de­vel­op an eth­ics and polit­ic­al philo­sophy based on Kant’s Cri­tique of Judg­ment, which deals spe­cific­ally with aes­thet­ic judg­ment. One of Aren­dt’s main points was that in or­der for polit­ics to oc­cur it must res­ist the to­tal­it­ari­an ges­ture that over-de­term­ines the space of the polit­ic­al, and ali­en­ates the polit­ic­al sphere from act­ive par­ti­cip­a­tion. Polit­ics for Aren­dt, like aes­thet­ics for Kant, re­quires con­front­a­tion with the un­pre­ced­en­ted and there­fore pre­sup­poses the activ­ity of think­ing, as think­ing oc­curs only when con­fron­ted with the un­known. Oth­er­wise ac­cess to polit­ics is left only to those ‘ex­perts’ who have the time and en­ergy to spe­cial­ize in policy ma­nip­u­la­tion while those whose polit­ic­al task ends at the vot­ing booth can de­vote their lives and en­ergy fight­ing for the few jobs and mea­ger pub­lic re­sources made avail­able by that policy, all the while find­ing them­selves in in­creas­ingly des­per­ate cir­cum­stances.

For Aren­dt, the polit­ic­al should un­der no cir­cum­stances sub­or­din­ate it­self to cap­it­al. Polit­ics should nev­er be­come in­stru­ment­al but must re­main open to the un­pre­ced­en­ted, ma­ter­i­al con­di­tions of life and must func­tion only to guar­an­tee the egal­it­ari­an space of par­ti­cip­a­tion. In oth­er words, polit­ics must al­ways re­main an end in it­self. This is what she takes from Kant’s no­tion of com­mu­nic­ab­il­ity. The polit­ic­al as such would be a crit­ic­al en­gage­ment with con­di­tions oth­er­wise taken as banal, or the re­cog­ni­tion of those which were pre­vi­ously simply in­vis­ible, what Rancière un­der­stands as the poor or those with no part in polit­ics. Yet ac­cord­ing to Aren­dt the polit­ic­al is op­posed to what she deems the so­cial sphere, which for her can­not enter the dis­course of the polit­ic­al. This would be the world of en­ter­tain­ment and gos­sip but also the bour­geois re­la­tions of status, the de­sire for wealth and so on. In this sense the so­cial ob­scures or even pre­vents polit­ics.

Rancière’s cri­tique of Aren­dt’s no­tion of the polit­ic­al re­gards ex­actly this. For Rancière, ex­clud­ing spe­cif­ic spheres of life from the polit­ic­al simply re­in­forces the form­al dis­tinc­tion that al­lows polit­ics to main­tain an ex­clus­iv­ity, that which only so-called ex­pert­ise (i.e. de­term­ined by the re­la­tions of cap­it­al) is per­mit­ted to in­hab­it. The situ­ation in which those in power in the UK cat­egor­ize Oc­cupy as a ter­ror­ist threat simply func­tions to push all dis­course which oc­curs with­in or as a res­ult of Oc­cupy in­to a cat­egory which rep­res­ents the vi­ol­a­tion of hu­man rights, the mur­der­ous, those who en­act a vi­ol­ent breach of justice, and cer­tainly those who ‘hate demo­cracy and free­dom’. This re­ac­tion is an at­tempt to pre­vent the re­cog­ni­tion that the con­di­tions of our re­la­tions to one an­oth­er on the level of the com­munity, which is to say the so­cial, are in fact polit­ic­al through and through. This is how Oc­cupy is per­mit­ted on an of­fi­cial level to ap­pear to the po­lice in the UK.

In a broad­er sense this can be un­der­stood as the func­tion of the po­lice in Rancière. The me­dia is now au­thor­ized to add the phrase ‘ter­ror­ist group’ to any story cov­er­ing Oc­cupy. It would be hard to ima­gine the re­gime in power in the UK (or the US for that mat­ter) to be labeled a ter­ror­ist group by the main­stream me­dia re­gard­less of the de­gree to which hu­man rights may have been vi­ol­ated by of­fi­cial or un­of­fi­cial policy. Yet it would be just as dif­fi­cult to ima­gine any or most main­stream me­dia not ad­mit­ting that ac­cord­ing to the com­monly ac­cep­ted defin­i­tion of ter­ror (which would ob­vi­ously in­clude things such as tor­ture, il­leg­al and secret de­ten­tion, vi­ol­ently re­press­ing free­dom of speech and tar­get­ing ci­vil­ians for ex­ample), the re­gimes in power in the UK or US have clearly been guilty of vi­ol­at­ing far more hu­man rights on both a na­tion­al and an in­ter­na­tion­al level than any Oc­cupy ac­tion. In­deed it would be dif­fi­cult to see how any of the ac­tions taken by Oc­cupy since its emer­gence could be con­strued as ter­ror­ism. The same con­tra­dic­tion is present in the streets between the pro­test­ers and the po­lice.

This is one way in which policy and pro­pa­ganda func­tion in a cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety to re-dis­trib­ute the sens­ible, to isol­ate the ob­vi­ous ma­ter­i­al con­di­tions from the au­thor­ized de­pic­tion and to cir­cum­scribe the polit­ic­al with­in an of­fi­cially con­sti­tuted space.

As noted in is­sue #3 of n+1’s Oc­cupy!: “The over-re­port­ing of pro­test­er vi­ol­ence has many causes… any in­stance of pro­test­er vi­ol­ence cre­ates the il­lu­sion of an eas­ily grasped, sym­met­ric­al con­flict… There is something much more dif­fi­cult to cap­ture about a pro­longed yet as­sy­met­ric­al con­flict — an en­tire po­lice force, with mil­it­ary arma­ments and in­tel­li­gence op­er­at­ives, en­act­ing a strategy of sup­pres­sion over sev­er­al months against a shift­ing, un­armed col­lect­ive.”6 Even with­in the Oc­cupy move­ment the min­im­al amount of vi­ol­ence en­gaged in by some pro­test­ers has in some cases be­come more of a fo­cus than the overt vi­ol­ence con­sist­ently per­formed by the po­lice.

This is one way in which policy and pro­pa­ganda func­tion in a cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety to re-dis­trib­ute the sens­ible, to isol­ate the ob­vi­ous ma­ter­i­al con­di­tions from the au­thor­ized de­pic­tion and to cir­cum­scribe the polit­ic­al with­in an of­fi­cially con­sti­tuted space. Free­dom be­comes, for ex­ample, free­dom to fight dearly for a severely un­der­paid job and then if lucky, to choose ones own health in­sur­ance policy, free­dom to choose a polit­ic­al rep­res­ent­at­ive who sub­mits to lob­by­ists and spe­cial in­terest cap­it­al, but nev­er free­dom to be­come dir­ectly polit­ic­al, nev­er to prac­tice polit­ics in the streets and chal­lenge not only the spe­cif­ic policies and en­trenched polit­ic­al parties, but to dir­ectly chal­lenge the eco­nom­ic sys­tem of cap­it­al which un­der­lies them. That of course be­comes ‘un­think­able’ and in­ex­press­ible if not out­right il­leg­al. One would be told in a dis­arm­ingly banal tone to sub­mit to the polling booth if change is wanted.

In a polit­ic­al sense, what is ex­per­i­enced in the US is something like an ex­treme plu­to­cracy but some­how des­ig­nated in polit­ic­al rhet­or­ic, in the classroom and in the me­dia as a great demo­cracy, even ‘the greatest’. Yet, when demo­cracy is prac­ticed, people — those with no part in polit­ics, i.e. work­ers, stu­dents, cit­izens, im­mig­rants, the poor; ba­sic­ally any­one without sub­stan­tial pe­cu­ni­ary power — those claim­ing free­dom of ex­pres­sion in Zuc­cotti Park for ex­ample, or in the streets of Oak­land are vi­ol­ently at­tacked and promptly ar­res­ted. Sadly, though in no way a sur­prise (for it simply fol­lows in the lo­gic of cap­it­al), it is the cor­por­a­tion whose rights as a cit­izen trump the demos and it is the po­lice os­tens­ibly in charge of pro­tect­ing and serving this so called demo­cracy who bru­tal­ize those who de­mand polit­ic­al dis­course through prax­is. One reas­on why the Amer­ic­an Bankers As­so­ci­ation (a lob­by­ing group) paid $850,000 to dis­cred­it Oc­cupy and “smear politi­cians sym­path­et­ic to its cause” is simply be­cause it has to cov­er over pre­cisely the kinds of con­tra­dic­tions which the mis­named fin­an­cial-in­dustry7 presides over — deeply un­ac­cept­able and re­veal­ing con­tra­dic­tions they clearly fear that Oc­cupy is un­cov­er­ing.8

For it is noth­ing oth­er than fear that the true con­tra­dic­tions of the eco­nom­ic mono­lith of cap­it­al, a res­ult of un­pre­ced­en­ted eco­nom­ic con­cen­tra­tion, will simply be­come too ob­vi­ous for even those work­ing on Wall Street to ac­cred­it. It is the vi­ol­ently repressed know­ledge that only a vacu­ous con­fid­ence in this il­lus­ory in­dustry jus­ti­fies such an ex­treme con­cen­tra­tion of wealth and power in a na­tion whose con­sti­tu­tion­al prin­ciples ex­pli­citly boast the very op­pos­ite. Go­ing back to Rancière, the point is not that there is an op­pos­i­tion between what is polit­ic­al and what is not. In­stead, us­ing the op­pos­i­tion po­lice/polit­ics Rancière sug­gests the fol­low­ing:

From the mo­ment that the word equal­ity is in­scribed in the texts of laws and on the ped­i­ments of build­ings; from the mo­ment that the state in­sti­tutes pro­ced­ures of equal­ity un­der a com­mon law or an equal count­ing of votes, there is an ef­fect­ive­ness of polit­ics, even if that ef­fect­ive­ness is sub­or­din­ated to a po­lice prin­ciple of dis­tri­bu­tion of iden­tit­ies, places and func­tions. The dis­tinc­tion between polit­ics and po­lice takes ef­fect in a real­ity that al­ways re­tains a part of in­dis­tinc­tion. It is a way to think through the mix­ture. There is no world of pure polit­ics that ex­ists apart from a world of mix­ture. There is one dis­tri­bu­tion and re-dis­tri­bu­tion.”9

Rancière’s point is that com­mu­nic­ab­il­ity and there­fore polit­ics, already pre­sup­poses equal­ity. The po­lice, on the oth­er hand simply func­tion to re­dis­trib­ute re­la­tions ver­tic­ally. Equal­ity however will clearly nev­er, in para­dox come from above, but rather must be taken, grasped in its im­man­ence. Re­la­tions must be trans­formed. This is kin to Rancière’s no­tion of ped­agogy il­lus­trated in his early work The Ig­nor­ant School­mas­ter. So long as the di­cho­tomy of the teach­er and the stu­dent is up­held there will be an in­tract­able sep­ar­a­tion between the two. What un­der­mines this re­dis­tri­bu­tion of power is the real­iz­a­tion or the as­ser­tion that it is only the stu­dent who can teach her­self. It is not a mat­ter of re­dis­trib­ut­ing know­ledge from the teach­er to the stu­dent but in­stead the pos­sib­il­ity of the ac­quis­i­tion of know­ledge by the stu­dent, per­haps as­sisted by the teach­er but at­tained from the world. The ca­pa­city to know and to learn is already there; if noth­ing else it is demon­strated in the ac­quis­i­tion of a first lan­guage, which nev­er oc­curs in a teach­er-stu­dent di­cho­tomy. In terms of the Oc­cupy Move­ment, this no­tion of rad­ic­al egal­it­ari­an­ism can be util­ized to render in­tel­li­gible the lack of de­mands and re­fus­al of sub­mis­sion to the dis­tri­bu­tion of polit­ic­al power.

Oc­cupy demon­strates pre­cisely that it does not re­quire the en­trenched polit­ic­al ap­par­at­us, the stag­nant di­cho­tomy of parties in the US or the failed sys­tem of checks and bal­ances, which simply sub­mit to the au­thor­ity of cap­it­al, in or­der to prac­tice polit­ics. It is ex­actly the op­pos­ite. It is the re­as­ser­tion, the seiz­ing of the space of equal­ity in the most rad­ic­al sense that marks the res­ist­ance and con­di­tion of the pos­sib­il­ity of polit­ics prac­ticed by Oc­cupy. Per­haps now that we’ve seen, to the in­creas­ing as­ton­ish­ment of the me­dia and the po­lice, the per­sist­ence that a move­ment with ap­par­ently no clear de­mands voiced has giv­en, it will fi­nally be un­der­stood that the de­mands are in­her­ent in the oc­cu­pa­tion of space and the prac­tices that oc­cu­pa­tion of­fers. And this is what en­rages the po­lice and what strikes fear in­to the mind of the politi­cian and the un­der­gird­ing fin­an­ci­er.

Oc­cupy demon­strates that it does not re­quire the en­trenched polit­ic­al ap­par­at­us in or­der to prac­tice polit­ics.

On the day that Oc­cupy was evicted from Liberty Square I walked by City Hall Park where all the gates were closed and all pub­lic ac­cess re­stric­ted. At every en­trance there were groups of cops in full ri­ot gear, billy-clubs at the ready. We know that squads of ri­ot po­lice are not de­ployed to pro­tect a politi­cian from the ran­dom act of vi­ol­ence. Rather, they func­tion to pro­tect him from the people as such who no longer have con­fid­ence in the sys­tem and who no longer ac­cept the cor­rup­ted au­thor­ity of his of­fice. I was re­minded of a pas­sage from Pla­to’s Re­pub­lic I came across only a week earli­er. It de­scribes the trans­ition from a pre­sum­ably just and demo­crat­ic re­gime to one marred by tyranny. If noth­ing else one can tell that the ruler is a tyr­ant when armed guards are hired for pro­tec­tion from the very people he rules over, when he isol­ates him­self from those whom he fears will un­der­mine his po­s­i­tion—a po­s­i­tion which is nev­er simply a single per­son but an en­tire mat­rix of re­la­tions, one which has been all to clearly bank­rupt from the start.10

Foot­notes


  1. Lis­ted on the “Ter­ror­ist/Ex­trem­ism up­date for the Lon­don Busi­ness com­munity Decem­ber, 2 2011. ht­tp://twit­pic.com/7nu4b2. 

  2. ht­tp://www.guard­i­an.co.uk/uk/2011/dec/05/oc­cupy-lon­don-po­lice-ter­ror­ism-doc­u­ment. 

  3. Mean­while the fields of Monsanto not only ex­ist as a res­ult of ex­pro­pri­at­ing the pre­vi­ous pop­u­la­tion but in­tro­duce ge­net­ic­ally mod­i­fied crops in­to the re­gion which not only af­fect the in­di­gen­ous ag­ri­cul­ture but in­so­far as the ge­net­ic se­quences are pat­en­ted, al­low Monsanto to lit­er­ally own all crops that be­come in­fec­ted with their own en­gin­eered genes and thereby sue farm­ers if these en­gin­eered seeds are found on their land. Of course, it is no co­in­cid­ence that Mi­chael R. Taylor the former vice pres­id­ent of Monsanto was ap­poin­ted ad­visor on food safety to the FDA in 2009. ht­tp://www.huff­ing­ton­post.com/christine-esco­bar/hes-back-former-vp-at-mon_b_228792.html. 

  4. i.e. the spread of glob­al cor­por­at­ism mis­named glob­al­iz­a­tion. 

  5. Rancière, Jacques. Dis­sensus p. 176, Con­tinuum, New York 2010. 

  6. Kessler, Jeremy, ‘This is What Non-Vi­ol­ence Looks Like’, Oc­cupy! #3 p. 4. 

  7. For it is not an in­dustry at all but a le­git­im­ized pyr­am­id scheme which pro­duces little else than debt. 

  8. ht­tp://art­icles.busi­ness­in­sider.com/2011-11-21/news/30424367_1_memo-polit­ic­al-parties-ows. 

  9. Rancière, Dis­sensus p. 207. 

  10. Not long after the evic­tion Bloomberg boas­ted, “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the sev­enth biggest army in the world.” ht­tp://www.politick­erny.com/2011/11/30/may­or-bloomberg-i-have-my-own-army-11-30-11/. 


Hannes Charen is a activist, theorist, student, and father based in New York City.

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