Embodying Resistance: Radical Affect and Imagination in the Age of Austerity

As I write, the Republic presidential debate is playing out. I’m not watching, because I’m tired of vapid political ritual, but it didn’t take much more than a passing glance at my social media feeds to get a sense of what my friends were feeling: fatigue, disillusionment, cynicism, exhaustion with performative bipartisanship. And not the kind of 20-something, nihilistic, post-political malaise that so many unfairly staple to the back of my generation. This was a fatigue more authentic and more real. In the wake of the spectacular debt ceiling turf war, the amazing arrogance and self-conscious delusion displayed by Nick Clegg and David Cameron following the London riots, and in the face of the increasingly impossible-to-deny reality that the way we’ve done (and thought about) politics for the past half-century is, at very best, limping to the barn, we’re authentically tired.

More than ever, then, it’s time to think big about politics. Not just how we might make electoral systems more efficient or representative, not just about accountability legislation, not just about trying to force financiers and bankers off the shoulders of our elected officials, but about politics itself: what it is, where it can happen, and who we think is capable of participating in it. Our time demands radicalism of a new sort. Many bristle at the mention of the word radical, dismissing it as irrational, disconnected, and perhaps most disingenuously, inherently violent and unaccountable. We’re quick to forget, though, that radical comes from the Latin term radix, meaning ‘root,’ suggesting that a more nuanced interpretation of radical politics is necessary. It is a politics that is rooted, connected to lived human experience, real communities, and the dense interstices of thought, contemplation, and action that take place between human subjects of all sorts, at all times. The possibility of radical change emerges in the space of what Indian Marxist scholar Sunil Sahasrabudhey calls ordinary “knowledge production.” In his words:

Ordinary life in fact is that vast bed where knowledge is produced hourly, daily. Ordinary life is the life without condition. It presupposes no technology, no religion, no state, no university. People constantly produce new knowledge based on their genius, experiences and the needs of everyday life. There has perhaps never been a greater source of knowledge than ordinary life (2008).

If it is even our most mundane interactions that produce the raw materials of the so-called ‘knowledge society,’ then it is within these mundane interactions that the promise of enormous transformation is held. Without being too vulgar in my Marxism, the old axiom applies here: those who control the means of production form the power class. In the lurch towards austerity, where the citizen is asked to pay for the failings of a crisis-riddled global finance system; in the limiting of politics to a professional game of back room deals; in the opportunistic leveraging of manufactured crises; in the reduction of the political imagination to the act of marking a piece of paper every four years; we find attempt after attempt to appropriate, blunt, undermine, eviscerate our ownership of our own mental capacities. Through political marketing and branding, through bald-faced lies about ‘shared sacrifice,’ and through discourses that try clumsily to suture the accumulation of debt (essentially a relation of dominance and dependence; read, slavery) onto the hope for liberation and social mobility, our imaginations are radically restricted.

How do we respond? By reappropriating our imagination. This is the radicalism I’m advocating for. Not programmatic socialisms or scientific utopianisms, but acts of radical imagination, inspired by, thought through, and realized alongside others. Acts that can help us reconsider and rebuild our very notion of ‘politics.’ Politics is conventionally defined as the negotiation and administration of power through both institutional and non-institutional channels. As Sahasrabudhey has so urgently pointed out, though, we produce at all times the resources from which global elites extract value and power  for their own benefit. In other words, we produce the very power that underlies the operation of politics. That is what needs to be reclaimed. To again quote Sahasrabudhey:

Only when producers of knowledge start understanding that their knowledge is turned against them in the new dispensation, the possibility of a new radical politics is born (2008).

For me, this politics of radical imagination demands that we revive the classical feminist notion that the personal is political: that the affective, embodied experience of so-called “ordinary life” is saturated with, inflected by, and determining of the mediation and negotiation of power, or, in other words, politics. By affective and embodied, I mean recognizing that we are moved by things, events, and experiences. When we encounter someone who suffers from a disease, when we comfort a mourning loved one, when we laugh with friends around a table over dinner, we are moved, pushed (or drawn) into a kind of intimacy that dramatically densifies what Kim Curtis, in a beautiful aesthetic interpretation of Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy, calls “our sense of the real.” In this turn, we come to recognize our fundamental commonness, a commonness shared with all people in the world, be they intimate relations or ostensible ‘strangers.’ Before social justice even enters our programs of change, this kind of affective  relationship prefigures a more fundamental form of justice, a kind of ethical (because it is a conscious and necessary and universally shared commitment rather than a completely subjective morality) tie to a world of others, to whom we ourselves are also an other.

The reason I think this is so important is because affect- embodied feeling, personal relations- is the most recent frontier under threat of colonization by the disembodying myths associated with late finance capitalism. As De Cock et al. (2009) have pointed out, finance capitalism, even following the complete meltdown of Wall Street in 2008, tends to default to a narrative of sublime, boundless circulation. Money simply flows through glowing screens and blinking cursors to our mobile devices, while we wade through invisible currents of always-on, always-pulsing market and financial data. Value, labour, work, debt- in the mythology of finance, it all transcends the body, emancipates us from the ‘mere’ experience of material being. Power, to paraphrase Raley (2009) seems to have vacated the streets and become nomadic.

This despite the fact that it is precisely our bodies, precisely our relationships with others and the world that are being constantly foreclosed upon by the engineers of global finance. To use a cliché example, Facebook brands itself as a space of infinite friendship; affect circulating freely, lifted above the restraints of border politics, symbolic confusion, and the like. It allows us to “connect,” befriend, emote, move as we please. Yet as a proprietary platform, those affective relationships are closely monitored and confined to narrow corridors that are scraped clean by advertisers. Our apparently emancipated friendships are then used to build self-consistent spheres of targeted advertising within the networked space(s) through which we so freely move. It is the commodification of one of the few spaces of the world that, for centuries, has seemed too sacred for markets to interfere in: feeling, personal connection, affect (Anderson & Milberry, 2009).

When we turn to a more recent and pressing crisis of the contemporary world- austerity measures- the situation and governing logic is the same. Status quo political economists try to sell austerity measures (cuts to social programming to pay off enormous sovereign debts that result from the bailout packages doled out by national governments to most of the world’s major financial sectors) as a way to fix or correct neoliberal market economies. They’re a kind of ritual admission of guilt that change absolutely nothing. Rather, they powerfully retrench the very same logics that lead to the financial collapse in the first place.

Finance, in the end, is about securitizing futures; investing in reserves of resources, pools of labour, and emerging markets before they fully coalesce, based on prediction, risk analysis, and speculation about projected future earnings. Suhail Malik, in a stunning and dense article for Mute Magazine has beautifully illustrated that austerity is a radical extension of this same impulse. Rather than ‘fixing’ the internal failings of finance, austerity stretches them further than they’ve ever gone. The instant national governments took on the private crisis of finance and turned it into a sovereign crisis of debt, they committed generations to the task of repaying these socialized losses. Children who have yet to enter productive labour relations, children who have yet to be born, children who have yet to be a passing thought in a parent’s mind are now committed to live a life indebted to an unholy union between financial and political elites.

This means a life of internalized austerity. It means a lack of access to healthcare and nutritious food; a lack of access to safe, nurturing educational spaces; a lack of access to community programs that help us discover those rich intersubjective bonds out of which can explode radical imaginative acts and alternative futures. Austerity is the attempt to securitize not fossil fuel futures, not timber futures, nor the future of anything else we’re accustomed to thinking of as a resource, but human futures in the general sense. Austerity is the attempt to securitize the resources mentioned above: affect, imagination, thought, the possibility of change. It is the expansion of the logic of finance capitalism par excellence into the affective domain.

Grim as this assessment is, it is always important that we recall Gramsci’s argument about such hegemonic schemes: hegemony is always a relation of incorporation and dissent; attempted domination dialectically tied to resistance. This means that even while affect is under severe attack (and in many cases, severely outflanked), it becomes, in itself, a pivotal site of resistance. To resist along an affective plane, we must think expansively, broadly, experimentally, and creatively about politics. Think, for example, about people who collect bottles that others have discarded in garbage bins and return them for the recycling deposit. This utterly mundane action is saturated with radical possibilities. The people, events, labour, and relations between all three that constitute such activities are ‘off the record,’ so to speak. It is an autonomous, self-determined, intersubjective relationship that takes shape outside of what ‘official’ economics records as a legitimate transaction.  The same goes for urban and window box gardening. These are powerfully resistant actions that implicitly reject an industrial food system carefully and deliberately crafted to serve the interests of massive agricultural corporations, who profit immensely from a hamstrung government. Even as you read, thousands are organizing an occupation of Wall Street, where they will reassert themselves before the very institutions that have gambled on the futures of their communities, failed, and come out more handsomely wealthy than they were before. The outcome of this demonstration is uncertain, but that’s the point. It’s an imaginative act through which human agents encounter one another in space, time, and feeling. It is in turn an act that resists the prescriptive, predictive, and securitizing violences and enclosures that global finance commits in its own best interest.

What becomes apparent, then, is that our political world is in fact heavily populated by sites of resistance, autonomy, and potentially transformative change. The political economy of the last half-century, though, has so powerfully narrowed the space of ‘politics’ that we struggle to imagine ourselves as political beings. To resist this narrowing, to locate what Arendt elegantly calls the “seeds of boundlessness” that blanket our world, we need a broader sense of what politics is. We need to know just how deeply we participate in its operations as we move through embodied, felt, affective relationships with ourselves, with the material world, and most importantly with the people around us. Lackluster political mobilization is often blamed on a lack of political empowerment, that sense that our actions in the public realm might beget further action, and in the end, a better future. This utter lack of empowerment in contemporary politics is powerfully reinscribed by the denial of the very opportunity to even imagine situations that might empower us; that is, by the enclosure and securitization of affective relations and the radical political imaginary. Consider, then, the political power that might be unlocked if we truly grasped just how radical and transformative we already are. If we understood and acknowledged and owned the political weight of our affective relations, would we not feel more empowered? Would we not understand ourselves as more deeply political beings, capable of creating real change?

When it comes to radicalism, or ‘transformative politics’ more generally, people tend to roll their eyes. They doubt its practicality. They say things like “that’s lovely, but you can’t possibly live those politics.” These people are wrong. We can and do live politics. We live them (and enliven them) through every relationship we develop, from every bit of knowledge that we produce, through every moment in which the state of our fellow humans compels us to think larger and broader than we had before. And the moment we realize this, we realize our own capacities for change. I want to close by returning to the words of Hannah Arendt, one of the most powerful influences on my own politics. Her words, I think, express better than most the expansive power of affect. For Arendt, when we situate ourselves within a plural world characterized by “human interrelatedness,”

the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of…boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation