From Thanatopolitics to the Great Refusal
by Devon G. Peña
There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning. — Warren Buffett
When the history of the early 21st century is debated a hundred years hence, perhaps a central point of contention will be the variant forms used by capitalists to wage class war against other human beings during the so-called Neoliberal epoch. But capitalist strategy is not indeterminably variant when it comes to matters of life and death. “Structural violence” boils down to the principle that capitalism is irrevocably a system of thanatopolitics — the rule of the dead over the living.
The dead labor of accumulated surplus labor time, machines, and the fancy abstract financial instruments of cognitive capital rule over the living labor of actual bodies. Increasingly, the working class is the same as the condition of a bare life; the new permanently unemployed and devalued service sector proletarians are the generalized Homo sacer subject to a state of economic exception.
Arizona state laws are currently proposing to effectively ban undocumented persons or their U.S.-born citizen children from seeking admission to hospitals. This is a perverse moment in the exercise of biopower. The telluric rationale is that “these people” will self-deport rather than face the dire consequences of children or elders dying from lack of access to medical care. These attacks are subsidized by billionaire support of Tea Party activists.
We are therefore currently witnessing capital’s death politics in the search for an enhanced ability to shock the immigrant, for e.g., by means of a ban from access to health care in hospitals. Such bans become a basic form of life and death power over entire categories of human beings subject to a state of exception.
The conflict between the few rich and the rest of us is ultimately about the politics of death. The Left and all other progressive forces organizing from the multitude today must surely come to understand that we cannot resolve this attack on the conditions of our ability to live by negotiating with the perpetrators of death who are killing us by means of economic shock and awe or what we really ought to call slow legal murder by means of exclusion, a sovereign ban on the life-sustaining activity of the unwanted.
Such are the nuanced postmodern antics of neoliberal niceties in this fateful march toward the martyrdom of the rest before the magisterial aggrandizement of the elite selfish few aligned with those who have decided to fear the “Other.” Increasingly, the mechanisms of the state of economic exception are being used to attack all the institutionally inscribed democratic gains that painfully improved the prospects of social and biological reproduction of working-class life in the fading Keynesian liberal democratic state.
Education, health care (including reproductive health), social security and pensions (so-called entitlement programs), environmental protection (including workplace health and safety), and investments in public amenities (libraries, parks, open space, heritage areas, etc.) and public goods (housing, water and sewage, electricity, telecommunications); the right to organize and struggle toward workplace democracy. All these working-class and progressive gains are under intense attack.
The last vestiges of the New Deal social contract are being dismantled, cut or eliminated in a savagely driven massive upward transfer of our common wealth. There has never been a louder giant sucking sound than the screed violently heralded by the shift of wealth that has led us to the current class composition of the USA in which 371 families have as much wealth as 150 million of the rest of us. We are Basement America. And it is time to dig out.
It is Chile post-1974 in the USA, of 2011. Put a mustache on Wisconsin Governor Walker and the physical similarity to Pinochet will startle you. You need not imagine or invent the ideological similarities in the anti-democratic shock doctrine politics championed by both regimes; that is already blatantly clear as was illustrated by the brilliant fake call from Koch to Governor Walker staged by a Buffalo, NY Internet activist a few weeks ago. No amount of faking by the Governor can convince most of us that he is interested in the preservation of democratic values.
Mexico 1911: USA 2011
Frankly, the U.S. is more like Mexico in 1911 and we all know what happened to that failed state [sic]. On the eve of the Mexican Revolution, approximately 300+ families controlled more than 90 percent of the arable land and 80 percent of all wealth assets and income.
For example, the Creel-Terrazas family in the northern state of Chihuahua, Mexico controlled 50 haciendas and ranches throughout the state with more than 7 million acres or about 28,000 km2 on which were pastured 500,000 cattle, 225,000 sheep, 25,000 horses, and 5,000 mules. This was typical of the northern landed elite during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz.
Today’s American billionaires don’t just dominate cattle ranching or land holdings. That’s the small stuff, even in high-end ecotourism destinations like Jackson Hole or the vast expanses of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range in Colorado and New Mexico that are owned by billionaires like Ted Turner and Louis Bacon. Today’s 300+ billionaire families ground their dominance in finance capital. They control the investment banking empires that finance most economic sectors and then some. But the number of families controlling the much larger, more complex, and thoroughly globalized US economy (2010 nominal GDP of $14.7 trillion) is roughly the same as the number that dominated Mexico’s economy before the Mexican Revolution.
Compañías Deslindadoras: Citizens United, Inc.
Like Mexico during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911), we are in the later stages of a massive anti-democratic project. Diaz used compañías deslindadoras (colonizing companies) to dispossess the rural populations and dismantle the communities and land holdings of indigenous peoples.
Díaz sought to vaccinate Mexico from foreign domination oddly by using foreign investments to develop the railways, mining and textile industries, power generation, and agriculture. He borrowed heavily from European bankers to subsidize this policy of attracting foreign capital for the modernization [sic] of Mexico’s economy. Debt accumulated; people went hungry; were worked to death; or murdered by the companies sent by Díaz. The peasants, workers, and natives got restless. They started striking, raiding, squatting, and fighting guerrilla wars against the hated rurales and company towns.
Like Mexico during the Porfiriato, the neoliberals in the USA have operated, since the time of Nixon, by borrowing increasingly from foreign bankers to finance the federal budget. Today, this is increasingly done with the substantial participation of the Chinese who are buying USA government debt bonds like the Big Macs one can eat outside the walls of the Forbidden City.
Since taxes on corporations and the wealthy have all but disappeared, deficit budgeting has increasingly become the norm. This creates additional public debt that is now blamed on unionized public sector workers. The Derivatives Depression exacerbated the federal debt through the perfect storm of a cumulative burden derived from reduced corporate and wealth taxes and the debt-financed bailout of those responsible for the 2008 financial capitalist and credit market crisis.
The roots of our current encounter with this form of structural violence date to the end of the Bretton Woods world order that defined capitalist inter-state relations after WW II. When Nixon ended the convertibility of the U.S. dollar he basically exposed the world to the threats posed by the binary construct of the Cold War and the struggle with the USSR for militarily-imposed hegemony. One supreme irony is that Nixon could not have foreseen the end of the Cold War. And Reagan did not understand that the collapse of Soviet bloc was not the end of history since the USA had yet to achieve status as a debtor nation to China.
Perhaps the super-rich response we are seeing occurs in the face of these declining fortunes of the USA as a unitary superpower? Does the rise of an increasingly multipolar world and global decline of USA hegemony signal the intensification of neoliberal trickery on the home front? Has the state of economic exception brought the technologies of the Pentagon, derived from the Vietnam to the Afghanistan War, home to be used against the ghetto and barrio, the strategic hamlets and social control districts of domestic class war?
At this late stage, the domestic attack is less monetarist and more explicitly a phase in the exercise of constituted power involving blatantly political investments by the titans of the market to manipulate electoral and legislative democracy. This is a principal mechanism which the capitalist class (e.g., today, the Koch brothers) has in effect used to commandeer command over the process of state lawmaking in places like Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, New Jersey, and Ohio with the approval of the Supreme Court.
Capitalists are using this new organizational form, call it Citizens United, Inc., to launch a direct attack on the remnant forms of working-class political organization that were institutionalized by the New Deal and largely focused on collective bargaining and arbitration rights dispensed through the mass-base power of industrial labor unions in the private sector. The private sector unions have largely been destroyed over the past 40 years. The public sector unions grew and adapted and are now threatened in this latest conflict against complete capitalist command.
The Political Recomposition of Constituent Power
But these attacks on immigrants and public sector workers might very well back-fire. They appear to have unleashed a growing revolt circulating struggles led by youth among undocumented workers, mixed-status families, and their extensive allies; public school teachers, students and parents; and college students.
There are emerging alliances with firefighters, police, nurses and other public health workers, drug abuse counselors, safety inspectors, farmers, prison guards, and many other public sector workers including academic professionals, lawyers, doctors, architects, and planners. This is part of an immanent process of political recomposition that emerges through the exercise of constituent power by all these sectors.
Like the youth democracy revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, American youth are vital forces in this insurrection of the multitude that transcends divisions of race, national origin, legal status, gender, and sexuality. Immigrant rights, racial equality, marriage equality, collective bargaining, guaranteed social insurances contribute to the sublation of divisions imposed on the multitude. Solidarity across differences is part of the process of political recomposition in the act of constituent power.
The old form of private sector unionism was basically organized to save capitalism from itself which is why workers at Ford Motor Co. received a “Five Dollar Day.” As Mario Tronti points out, the New Deal was a “productivity deal” that required labor to acquiesce to a tripartite system of bargaining and arbitration. Ford knew: No mass production without mass consumption and so workers must be able to purchase the cars they make. That was the deal.
Many of us called this type of unionism a form of class collaboration. In return for more wages, workers gave capital more productivity. This trapped American workers on the treadmill of an endless growth machine and eventually right of out work as dead labor in the form of automation and globalization undermined the mass worker organizations and their capacity to resist and counter-plan.
The current wave of attacks on workers’ rights to collectively bargain in the public sector is of the same class of capitalist strategy as the telluric attacks on immigrant workers in Arizona and other states. Both are designed to impose a state of siege on those remaining sectors of the working class that have the potential for greatest militancy and circulation of struggle to other sectors.
New organizational forms of resistance and terrains of struggle are emerging that could allow the multitude to respond more effectively to current neoliberal strategy based — semiotically, anyway — on a contrived public debt crisis caused by tax breaks to the wealthiest among us and the effects of the Derivatives Depression as a pretext to attack basic rights of due process, equal protection, freedom of speech, and assembly. This attack is occurring because these rights are actually the foundation of our everlasting potential to exercise constituent power.
The challenge for us involves a paradigm shift that rejects having to choose between Mises/Hayek and Marx. Hayek and Mises are the fathers of extant neoliberal theory and are the intellectual precursors of the Chicago School boys. Hayek is also the most strident source of anti-Marx ideology produced by the European generation of his time that flirted with “communism” during a disillusioned youthful spell. My point is that all of these are white European thinkers.
In the words of Foucault biographers, Miller and Miller, von Mises and von Hayek, “[are] apostles of a libertarian strand of modern social thought rooted in a defense of the free market as a citadel of individual liberty and a bulwark against the power of the state.” Marx, on the other hand, provides a useful toolkit for strategic thinking, but it is somewhat dated. And Negri still sees the world through European eyes. We need a homespun response to the theoretical and strategic quagmire produced by the clash of neoliberal and socialist/communist ideologies, both of which came to the Americas as part of the cultural baggage of invasive violent settler states. Marx and Foucault are both Dead White Males.
The current class war presents opportunities for a qualitative rupture toward the horizon of generalized refusal, and the struggles of Mesoamerican Diaspora peoples are a major reason for this challenge and opportunity.
The Great Refusal
Von Hayek and his busy neoliberal Chicago School protégés have bequeathed the world some five and a half decades of experiments. They gave us the expansion of thanatopolitics by melding neoliberal governmentality unto the cruel state of exception.
Against what might be the last gasps of neoliberal governmentality, we must nourish the constituent power of the multitude. Perhaps by recognizing how it may reside in a creative variant of the old Wobbly idea of the General Strike? I agree with Mario Tronti, that the General Strike is a naive and romantic notion, especially in the age of immaterial labor. However, the idea of the strategy of refusal (of noncooperation with capital, etc.) is a different creature.
The abolition of the relationship to capital can be undertaken many ways including through conscious withdrawal rooted the immediate social world of the commons through collaborative fields of labor’s fire. This is not a General Strike — absurd, since so few of us in the USA are material workers in that strict sense. In some ways, this involves a refusal to consume commodities and to be reduced to mere status of labor-as-commodity (i.e., withdrawal from the formal labor market).
The Great Refusal confronts the challenges and opportunities of the age of immaterial labor and the reduction of American workers to mere consumers or shards of labor time trapped inside the fleeting locations of structurally violent workplaces. Escaping the grip of the reduction of our selves to the bare life, to whatever results from the ungovernable wisdom of the invisible force of a system that operates on the amoral base of “price signals,” means the multitude refuses to work to produce or consume commodities. Decoupling of consumption from the circuits of capitalist reproduction is a time-honored and effective strategy of refusal.
This does not imply that one stops eating or living. This is a revolt against prices, if you will. The refusal as withdrawal from the market affects the ability of capitalists to actually dance with prices, as Hayek would want. The refusal is the refuge of self-valorizing labor. Grow some of your own food and barter for the rest instead of consuming store-bought commodities. This is one example of the type of direct agency that, if generalized, can bring everything to a standstill.
The strategic problem is more complex: Again Tronti: “[W]e can see the evident truth of that simplest of revolutionary truths: capital cannot destroy the working class; the working class can destroy capital.” That was 1965. Today, biopower presents a different set of challenges that conduct the ability of capital to destroy workers if not quite the working class as such. This requires that we destroy the working class as labor power for capital or consumer of capitalist goods.
To do this we first must confront the negative dialectic of the sovereign constituted power, and this is where Tronti’s analysis takes us in a dead-end direction. The state of exception suspends the rule of law to allow for the destruction and removal of entire categories of people like the undocumented worker. Are we to refuse engagement with the juridical order and allow thousands of deaths?
The telluric partisan attack on the lives of undocumented workers is precisely the sort of biopolitical violence that we face today but also in 1965. Today, the 35-40 million uninsured workers in the USA without access to nominal preventive health care are also Homo sacers. The sublation of partisan violence requires at this point a strategic legal defense of the juridical order that provides the organizing space for constituent power to emerge so that the multitude can assert social force and practice democracy.
The strategy of refusal thus requires mass mobilization of the sort we have witnessed in Arizona and Wisconsin. So, get your shovels out and start digging a garden with your neighbors. Get out on the streets and join the protests. Occupy the citadels of constituted power, the capitol buildings, legislator hallways, town halls, and yes, the banks and corporate headquarters. Disrupt capitalist command by interrupting business as usual. Close your bank accounts and withdraw your savings (stuff the money under your mattress); destroy your credit cards; consume less, it does not make you happier anyway.
This is not rocket science; it is class war. And our withdrawal from the market is the most powerful form of constituent power at our disposal at this time. If we dare, we can precipitate a crisis that capital cannot escape.
Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His influential books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (University of Arizona Press, 2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (University of Arizona Press, 1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.