On the Borders of the Political – Activism Bound

Paper for “On the Borders of Politics: Activism, Democracy, Labour,” Department of Gender And Cultural Studies, University of Sydney 2007 Seminar Series, June 1.

93960209_bridgestreet1_sbsFirst, it’s not surprising that the emergence of a so-called global activism was accompanied by debates about activism as such. Much of this turns around the crisis which Brett alluded to earlier: the refinement of ‘crowd control’ techniques that involve massive and often pre-emptive repression, movements increasingly constrained by barricades, designated protest zones, lockdowns and ever-more severe controls on migration during such events. But these are, let’s say, the external conditions of that crisis; whereas the crisis of activism itself runs much deeper. Because activism too has its borders, and the shape of these are not all that different from those more famously exercised upon it. Though it’s important to note that the specific techniques and levels of force do differ, the contours of those limits are remarkably similar.

In any case, many of the debates around activism have been articulated as a critique of representational politics and of specialisation. One contribution to that debate, by Andrew X, puts it this way:

The activist is a specialist or an expert in social change. To think of yourself as being an activist means to think of yourself as being somehow privileged or more advanced than others in your appreciation of the need for social change, in the knowledge of how to achieve it and as leading or being in the forefront of the practical struggle to create this change.

This sense of elevation may be more or less apparent, the sense of expertise and specialised knowledge more or less pronounced. But the figure of the activist dwells in these distinctions. In other words, ‘activism’ is not a synonym for political action. It is a definition of it. It is a political doctrine – an -ism – that circumscribes what actions and dispositions might be deemed to be properly political and, therefore by contrast, those which are not. Similarly, ‘activist’ is not a term that coincides with those who engage in political activities. Rather, ‘activist’ is the demarcation of an identity and community that privileges particular kinds of activities, and forms of relation, by defining them as properly political. And what is deemed proper, for the most part, are the kinds of appropriations that make representational claims possible, and the apparent self-evidence of the boundaries of that appropriation. One does not speak, or act, for oneself, but for others – and, oftentimes, these others tend to be framed as ‘ordinary people’ whose limits correspond with those of, say, the Australian state, and are assigned a unity and homogeneity in similar fashion.

But it is the emergence of a so-called global activism which opens up the question of representation beyond its merely representational manoeuvres of substitution and displacement, and somewhat complicates the question of the boundaries of politics.

The question of representation was prominent throughout debates over whether anti-summit protests signalled a kind of unity of purpose, aim or even, more emphatically, identity. Or, conversely, whether the coincidence of groups and individuals protesting outside summit meetings, with often completely divergent politics, could – or should – be made to coincide politically. Much of this has been apparent in debates about decentralisation, alliances, affinity groups, autonomy and the like.

In another sense, however, the debate over representation was also a debate over whether those protests were anti-globalisation, a manifestation of globalisation (including that of protest), or counter-globalisation, and so on. In other words, were these protests a nationalist response to the forces of neoliberalism (as in an attempt to save nation-states from the ravages of international finance) or a global response to capitalism? It is not necessary to reiterate those debates here, though it might be noted that, locally at least, the turn to noborder campaigns after the anti-WTO protests was a consequence not of declarations of unity and claims to representation, but of an insistence on irreconcilable differences within the anti-summit milieux.

Therefore, while it might be tempting to construe a critique of the often-nationalist contours of activism as grounds for the proposition of a global activism, we think on the contrary it raises a more complex set of questions. Is there, or should there be, a global, or total, politics? Or a politics that might encompass everything? And: Is everything political?

Before we return to these questions, though perhaps as a way of putting them differently, it might be illustrative to remark on the persistence of geopolitical borders through activism, even on those occasions when it is precisely borders that are being put into question.

Remarkably, in the midst of the campaigns to close the detention camps, though it often did not pass without challenge, there was – and continues to be – a distinction made between activists and detainees. Briefly put: those outside the camps are identified as activists, those inside as detainees. Underneath this, of course, is a definition of politics, of what counts as political and, moreover, what is to be understood as movement. Ironically, then, those who cross borders without state authorisation are, according to this, not part of a movement, while those whose sense of politics remains fixed by national boundaries reserve for themselves the definition of movement. It might be added, with some rather more grim irony, that the techniques currently deployed against anti-summit protests – of raids, lockdowns, corralling and so on – are all forms of border policing, controls on movement whose less visible laboratory is that of migration control.

In any case, this distinction for some amounts to an argument for inclusion, for opening up or re-defining the category and identity of activism to include those, as with detainees, who are excluded from it. But if one proceeds not from the apparently self-evident question of how to represent, or encompass, everyone or everything – which, put differently, means instead proceeding from a sense of how migration controls function not only as instances of exclusion, but also (as Agamben would put it) inclusive-exclusion – the answer is by no means so simple as expanding the scope of recognition and representation. Or giving out more passports and visas.

It is not clear when the figure of the activist became such a pre-eminent figure in politics, but its rise is perhaps inseparable from triumph of democracy as the horizon and sense of the political. For while the activist might be distinguished from the revolutionary, the partisan, the militant or any other figure that, at certain moments and in various places assumed a similar prominence in politics, or radical politics, it remains the case that the activist – while it contains a critique of these other figures, seemingly presents itself as something like an empty figure, ready to be filled by whatever content or set of aims, apparently neutral. One can be an environmental activist, an animal rights activist, a student activist, and so on. In this, the activist parallels the figure of the citizen.

It might be said that the activist is the very model of active citizenship. And citizenship, as we know, has its limits, borders that are policed, a sense of what is proper. To put this another way: activism, much like citizenship, oscillates between identity and indifference. Here, indifference presents itself as seemingly capable of universal inclusion and equality – which is to say, the kind of differences that are recognised in the marketplace, stripped of any differences that might be an impediment to circulation. Migration controls do not only exclude, they include conditionally. And, increasingly, the condition of inclusion is tied to work – whereas exclusion (or, rather, internment and deportation) involves determinations of labour market superfluity. We could talk more here about the coincidence of activism with marketing or, on a related note, the dominance of a kind of work ethic among activists that is indifferent to the question of the effectiveness of such work, a kind of activist productivity for productivity’s sake.

But I’ll leave this part of the discussion with this remark.

Given that the limits upon, and of, activism correlate so firmly with those of border controls – from the techniques used by police at anti-summit protests to the sense of the boundaries of politics articulated by activists themselves – we would insist that the geopolitical (which is also the economic) cannot serve as a model for politics, let alone political change. This doesn’t mean that there are no limits to politics, or that politics is not about making decisions, of marking differences, however provisional. The question cannot be how to give expression to a politics that remains indifferently open or which renounces limits as such. Rather, it is a matter of insisting that the questions of relation and non-relation, of decision and undecidability, are the persistent question that characterises politics as such.


If activism often distinguishes itself from those it represents, or claims to act for, or – to put this another way still – distinguishes itself from the objects of its action in the boundaries of its address and grammar, it nevertheless and at the same time contains a distinction that seems far less amenable to critique. It’s not often that Arendt’s name will be invoked in this formulation, but it is Arendt who pursues this with the some rigour, and in some of the more interesting ways. Namely: the distinction between action and contemplation.

But, for Arendt, not all action is political. There is also work, and labour. Political action, unlike these is not routinised or repetitive but constitutes beginnings, neither instrumental or technical but contingent. Political action is not concerned with life, as is labour – and we might extrapolate here that for Arendt the biopolitical is a variety of depoliticisation.

Moreover, the specificity of political action resides neither in universals nor seeks unity – since these for Arendt can only be a result of contemplation. Politics arises, Arendt will insist time and again, not as a consequence of the figural, but the in-between, the infra. Political action, she writes: “establishes relationships and therefore has an inherent tendency to force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries.”

In this sense, political action harnessed or appearing under the auspices of representational politics is, for Arendt, no longer political action but – on the contrary – an aspect of contemplation, that is: Platonic. What, therefore, seems at first glance to be a distinction between thinking and acting – or seems so if one reads it as a definition of activism – is in fact a distinction between thinking and acting in particular ways, a question of one’s disposition toward others and the world.

It is not the often crudely put activist injunction to ‘do something, anything’, but nor is it an embrace of philosophy, which is to say: the traditions of Western philosophy inherited from Plato and Aristotle, the traditions of the figural and the political animal.

Political action creates the world, and very specifically, amounts to the sense of the world. The faculty that makes us aware of the world is, she argues, politics. And she very much does mean sense, tactile, tensile, corporeal.

Somewhat obliquely, Jean-Luc Nancy follows Arendt in exploring the relation between politics and the world, or worldliness, when he writes that “Sense does not take place for one alone. Because sense is ‘being-toward’, it is also ‘being-toward-more-than-one.” But, perhaps unlike Arendt, he goes on to add: “and this obtains even at the heart of solitude.”

Which brings us to a difficult question, or returns us to the question of what is specific to political action, distinguished from the action, or actions of labour, of work, and it might be added, the work of depoliticisation.

Whereas for Arendt, politics has come to imitate economics – in the shape of trade unionism, for instance – for Virno, “labour has acquired the traditional features of political action . . . it is in the world of contemporary labour that we find the ‘being in the presence of others’ . . . the beginning of new processes.” Moreover: “modern political praxis has internalized the model of Work and come to look increasingly like a process of making.”

In other words, for Virno, postfordist labour –characterised by communication, by the appropriation of communication, innovation, indeed we might add networking, and so on – assumes the characteristics that Arendt would have us apply to politics. The very distinctions Arendt seeks to make between politics, labour and work for Virno no longer apply.

It might be said, however, that while Virno claims this is a challenge to Arendt’s understanding of politics, labour and work, it’s not entirely clear – given Arendt’s arguments about depoliticisation – that Virno is not indeed amplifying her arguments. In any case, Virno’s response to this predicament is to argue for the development of a non-state public sphere – though, if one attempts to think a model for this, it’s difficult not to think of the internets. And while much can be said here, it’s doubtful to what extent this does not invoke a remodeling of politics as work, or labour.

Nancy’s remark that sense does not take place for one alone “even at the heart of solitude”, seemingly far less Arendtian than Virno’s non-state public sphere, retains two aspects of Arendt’s sense of politics that Virno does not. That is, the sense of politics as the sense of the world, and the sense of politics as plurality, disagreement, beginnings, difference, decision.

Assuming that Virno is right, that the distinction between politics and economics no longer obtains, then it is also the case that Arendt’s institutional figure of solitude no longer does either. As Lazzarato puts it, the injunction to communicate, network, and more deeply, to be a subject, is the very stuff of postfordist labour. Might that not also apply to activism, be the very character of activism? Might it not be possible to discern in activism a veneration of action which forgets that the movement from economics to politics does not always consist of action, but, at times, involves inaction, as in the refusal to labour, the strike?
Though, perhaps we will have to pass through Genet here.

Steven Miller distinguishes between what he calls Genet’s “praxis of solitude” and Arendt’s “institutional figures of solitude”, remarking that Genet’s ‘work also differs from hers in its presentation of the withdrawal whereby the politics of truth opens beyond the public sphere.’ Furthermore:

Solitude, for Genet, becomes the solitude of decision, adherence to a cause, acceptance of the invitation. “[I]t is in solitude that I accept to be with the Palestinians. It is not when I say yes to Layla [Shahid], yes I will leave with you, not at that moment. It is when I am alone and I decide in solitude. At that moment, I believe that I am not lying” [ED 283]. Using a term that Genet often uses to refer to himself (in his “May Day Speech,” for example), one might say that this is the solitude of the “vagabond.”

Political commitment is a matter of deciding to become part of the world of the other’s gaze, a decision that necessarily takes place in solitude because that world is invisible, if not structurally abolished. Thus … Genet insists that his period with the Palestinians was “time spent among” but “not with the Palestinians” [PL 3]”.

There are undoubtedly some problems with Genet’s sense of politics here. But it might serve as a reminder, at a time of always-connected networking (which is a kind of work, but not yet perhaps politics), that connection is not necessarily relation. Politics is not only about connecting but also disconnecting. And the solitude that can derive from disconnection is not a retreat to the personal. It does not mean linking to oneself, which is to say, it is neither individualism nor quietism. A politics that disconnects as well as connects remains a form of relation. It is about the decisions, perhaps taken in solitude, to act or not, to be with, be among, or to be alone.


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