In this two part interview Andrew Robinson introduces the political philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. In this second part we moved from political imaginary to political strategy; discussing Deleuzian alternatives to democratic-centralism for implementing revolutionary change.
Deleuze presents us with an exhilarating political imaginary, but to what extent is such an imaginary a means for attaining itself? Particularly given that, as you write, desire is expressive rather than instrumental? Doesn’t the success of a revolutionary movement partly depends on its ability to maintain its unity and discipline against the dangers of fragmentation and division—a kind of regimentation of desire that Deleuze opposes?
The argument you’re advancing here makes a certain sense, because the rhizomatic movements of the last few decades have suffered from a great decline over the last decade or so. But really, there isn’t much evidence of organised parties doing much better. The fashion for disciplined, united, democratic-centralist parties largely followed from the success of the Bolshevik Revolution—and then later, various guerrilla-led revolutions. But the applicability of this model is questionable. Firstly, has this model served well in other contexts? There are dozens of groups trying to reproduce this model in Britain, Europe, America, all over the world in fact, and they all seem to end up either as groupuscles or mainstream parties. It’s very noticeable that the big upsurges in struggle for the last half-a-century haven’t really stemmed from these groups at all. Secondly, did the Bolsheviks really “win”? The regime ossified into authoritarianism pretty quickly, and ultimately deformed back into capitalism. This happened repeatedly with regimes which went the same way.
Why do you think that was?
I think there are two explanations for this. Either the communist model is not really a pursuit of liberation in a Deleuzian sense to begin with—it seeks to replace an “illegitimate” domination with a “legitimate” domination, one which authentically represents instead of misrepresenting, which represents a true essence instead of a false one, and which thereby simply reproduces renunciation, repression and the state, through its structural isomorphism with the way in which capitalism/statism already works. Or the communist model is a pursuit of genuine liberation, but seeks it by means of its opposite—using the state to bring about the withering-away of the state. If the latter, then the question arises, does the state really wither away when a revolution is achieved this way? Is there, for that matter, an egalitarian society or a sustainable society? It fails because ultimately, the party model reproduces the structure of alienation: the separation between leaders and led, intellectual and manual workers, specialists in revolution and non-specialists reduced to a follower role. I think these questions have been asked within communist movements, in which certain fractions—the Italian autonomists for instance, and the Zapatistas—have moved towards a more Deleuzian model.
What is the Deleuzian a model of political organisation?
There are various models of political organisation in Deleuze and Guattari—the war-machine, the band or pack, the rhizome, the subject-group. War-machines are taken from Clastres‘ work on Amazonian bands, who form war-parties when they are aggrieved. According to Clastres, this is a way to prevent any group from concentrating too much power in its own hands. Packs or bands are small groups with limited numbers, unstable connections, and an avoidance of fixed hierarchy. The band detaches things from their usual connections or territories, bringing them into new combinations. Rhizomes are networks which connect different points without a central trunk or hierarchy.
What advantages do horizontal formations have over traditional, hierarchical parties?
A number of advantages. They can’t be “beheaded” the way parties can—the way the Black Panthers were, for example. They can incorporate a far wider diversity of groups and perspectives. They have a certain resilience against repression, because they can regroup on the band level. Ultimately – and this is recognised for instance by Arquilla and Ronfeldt , on behalf of the US state—rhizomes defeat trunks in prolonged conflicts. The recent cases of quasi-Leninist revolutions occurred because forces such as the Vietcong, the Algerian FLN, and the Maoists adopted an organisational model with certain rhizomatic traits. The state and capital have had to adapt by adopting rhizomatic tactics themselves (while keeping the core hierarchy intact, of course).
And this issue is also very contemporary. I’ve written elsewhere on the politics of the excluded, on emergent forces of resistance appearing at the margins of capitalism. There are a lot of these forces, many of which are barely known about in the North, and some of them are remarkably successful in carving out autonomous zones, creating new practices of living, even defeating states in particular localities.
Groups like the Zapatistas , MEND , KRRS , Abahlali and similar groups, the MST , the Mapuche resistance , Argentine piquetero groups , La Ruta Pacifica , APPO; movements such as the Cochabamba uprising, the ‘gas war’, the Kabylie uprising , the Arab Spring; and ongoing struggles in places like El Alto, the Andes, the Amazon, the Himalayas, and the Caucasus. Some of these groups and movements are rhizomes or war-machines, some of them are hybrid groups combining elements of the rhizome with elements of the Leninist party or the guerrilla cell. They either use the informal small-group model, an inclusive network model, or some kind of general assembly. They arise out of, and remain densely connected to, local knowledges and forms of life specific to each setting, which actualise non-capitalist living through practices such as land occupation, subsistence farming, and indigenous rituals. And the basis for this phenomenon is that a lot of people, in a lot of the world, live in rhizomatic ways in at least some parts of their lives. I think of these groups as autonomous social movements, similar in certain respects to the groups in the North discussed by people such as Katsiaficas . But the numbers and power of these movements are on a scale unlike anything in the North. Even where revolutionaries still use state-forms, these forms depend crucially on movements of the excluded—a Chavez, Morales, Thaksin, or Aristide can only take and hold power by channelling such movements, or even stimulating them if they don’t already exist.
So we have good reasons to be optimistic? I must admit the last three decades in Britain haven’t filled me with optimism.
There is pressure in the UK or US to feel hopeless, because the state is deploying huge resources to smash movements before they develop any momentum. But on a global scale, the system seems to be fraying round the edges, falling apart in places, or hanging by a thread. If we think also about groups which use a rhizome or war-machine model, but with a reactive or hierarchical goal, then we can see a strong parallel between this model and a tendency towards state collapse in the most peripheral areas—places like Afghanistan, Somalia, Northeast India, the Niger Delta. In these kinds of spaces—termed ‘black holes’ by the state—the nomadic war-machines are actually stronger than the states. Of course, these kinds of situations frequently become quite nasty, because the force which is unleashed is at least as much reactive as active. The Zapatista situation, where localised state collapse is simultaneously a progressive move, is still quite rare. But the potential is there, and certainly seems more likely than a Leninist revolution or a new social-democracy. If there’s a new social-democracy, it will emerge because the system needs to contain revolt.
The criticism that sometimes comes from socialists is that hierarchies develop in ostensibly horizontalist group formations anyway and without any formalised procedures to recognise this and hold power to account hierarchies can become much more oppressive. Indeed much of the inspiration for Deleuze comes from Nietzsche who developed his political philosophy precisely as a rejection of attempts to bound power around certain reified *universalist* principles.
Can you clarify if you’re criticising Deleuze for being universalist, or for being anti-universalist?
I was suggesting that Nietzsche sees universality principles as a version of “slave morality”. So that would make it (to the extent that Deleuze is following Nietzsche) a criticism of Deleuze’s anti-universalism. Deleuze’s embrace of horizontalism could be construed as a universalist principle—but I think socialists would argue that unless this commitment is formalised into specific democratic procedures we are threatened with a situation in which a group pays lip service to horizontalism while in practice is quite oppressive.
Of course, this sometimes happens. The question would be, why do horizontal groups revert to hierarchical forms? Is there something inherent in human beings which makes us form hierarchies, however we try to live—so the best we can do is democratise the hierarchies? This view seems to lead back to a conservative stance: human nature is fixed, people are basically bad, so conflict is inevitable, and the best we can do is civilise oppression a bit.
Alternatively, do hierarchies arise because the techniques for the maintenance of autonomy are so far insufficient, incomplete, or maybe forgotten? Perhaps people in social movements have not overcome reactive desires after all. Perhaps people revert to familiar, habitual relations even when trying to transcend them. In which case, the point is to develop better ways of locking-in horizontal relations.
I’ve seen this kind of dynamic (i.e. informal hierarchies) in social movements, and I think a lot of it comes down to personality types or communicative styles—some people have quite passive or dependent outlooks, whereas others come across as charismatic or knowledgeable, and get interpellated as leaders, or perhaps seek it. There are big gender and class differentials in which style people adopt, so this reinforces the persistence of gender and class dominance as well.
Wouldn’t democratic procedures ameliorate this?
I don’t think formal procedures or elected hierarchies solve the problem at all—because the same, dominant types of people then manage to get even more power. They’ll be the loudest, most confident speakers in assemblies, and the most likely to seek and gain election in representative systems. Actually, if anything, it’s mitigated a bit in small groups, because people who are less confident are less anxious about speaking. To be honest, I don’t have a solution here, but I think the issue is probably a critical literacy issue—people need to be more reflexive about the relationships they’re in, some people need to become more assertive and gain a sense that they have valid knowledges and contributions, and some other people need to learn to listen and to situate their own perspectives as partial.
When thinking about social power, I’d suggest that there are actually at least two axes. I’d think about concentrated and diffuse power on the one hand, and formal and informal power on the other. The libertarian left has traditionally favoured diffuse formal power, such as local assemblies. Occupy, and some of the social movements I talked about before (the Zapatistas and the MST for example), have diffuse formal power structures. The assembly or the commune is the main site of power. Formal state systems are based on concentrated formal power. Leninists and social-democrats have traditionally sought to capture concentrated formal power so as to use it in more benign or authentically representative ways. The same problems come up with all of these approaches—diffuse formal power can slip into concentrated formal power, and concentrated formal power usually turns into dominance for the benefit of those in power.
If formality increases the risk of concentration, a Deleuzian ideal would be a diffuse informal power?
Yes. And I think Deleuze tries to sketch some of the structural conditions for diffuse informal power, particularly in relation to war-machines, bands and so on. He suggests that diffuse power can be mobilised to prevent concentrations of power, but it takes particular “affects”, particular zones of desire for it to work.
It’s interesting that you raise the question of universalism. Actually, there’s an influential critique of Deleuze—the critique coming from Alain Badiou , Slavoj Zizek and Peter Hallward for example—which maintains precisely the opposite—that Deleuze does have a universal, that he’s a closet universalist! I think part of the reason for this is that Deleuze makes general claims about the qualitative basis of existence—that it is always based on becoming, it has virtual and actual aspects, it is based on active force, it is an expression of univocity and differenciation, and so on. It doesn’t lead to an overarching normative position as to how everyone should live, but it has general implications.
Was I wrong to present him as an anti-universalist?
Deleuze is anti-universalist in the sense of being immanentist. He doesn’t believe traditional kinds of morality and ontology which suggest an additional dimension above the world, which judges or structures the world—like God in mainstream Christianity for example. He doesn’t want some particular site to become the focus of power, integrating all the rest. Part of the reason for this is that arborescent (tree-like) power necessarily produces hierarchies and inequalities. Deleuze, like other poststructuralists, thinks that this kind of universalism isn’t really universal. It always ends up as the perspective of some particular group, portrayed as universal to dominate other groups. This is similar to Marx’s theory of ideology—what appear as moral absolutes are really particular interests of the bourgeoisie.
Does this make him hostile to grand totalising projects?
Deleuze isn’t in line with a lot of the Anglo-American poststructuralists who think it’s too dangerous to try to create a big political project. He wants to change the general frame. Certain structures are oppressive of desire as such. These structures might be diffuse and capillary, but they also have a centralising logic, and an alienating logic. In this sense, Deleuze is a revolutionary theorist. He sees cumulative, capillary resistances, but he also sees them reaching a point of critical mass which will change the course of the world. This isn’t a universalism in the sense of a philosopher-king delivering a truth to humanity. But there’s a certain sense in it of humanity in general, or life in general—that on the whole, we’d live better without hierarchies than with them.
Doesn’t this make him an anti-universalist on universalist grounds?
Deleuze goes along with the Nietzschean idea of “beyond good and evil”, but if we read this closely, it doesn’t mean there are no values. It means values are constructed starting from active power as “good”, and defining what’s “bad” in relation to it. What’s “bad” is what blocks the power of active desire or active force. This sometimes means things are only “bad” from one point of view, and “good” from another—if two active forces come into conflict. But I think Deleuze also wants to say that some things are “bad” in general, because they run counter to the functioning of active force as such. Hence he has a kind of general project of overcoming certain kinds of structural oppression which are counterposed to active force as such—the capitalist axiomatic, the state, bureaucracy, arborescence, striation of space, rigid segmentarities, unmarked terms and so on. These are forces which block the emergence and expression of active force as such. They aren’t just bad in relation to a particular desire. In a sense, they’re ‘universally’ bad, because active force is ‘universally’ good (even though active forces can desire diverse, incommensurable things). Part of the theoretical dynamism in Deleuze’s thought come from the attempt to maintain this kind of universalist anti-transcendence while also emphasising radical immanence.
Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in September 2009 by Routledge.
In this two part interview Andrew Robinson introduces the political philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. In this first part Andrew discusses Deleuze’s political concept of ‘desire’; its radical promise as well as the dangers of cooptation.
Gilles Deleuze is famous for the statement ‘desire is revolutionary’. Presuming that Deleuze was not championing the politics of consumer capitalism, what did he mean by the phrase and how could a politics of desire promise to reshape our political landscape?
The phrase “desire is revolutionary” has different connotations today from what it had when it was written. Today, it sounds like it could be an advertising slogan! But when it was written, it was really mouldbreaking. Deleuze was part of the ‘68 generation, the extended conduits for the most recent great revolutionary wave. The Deleuzian vision is very similar to what the Situationists call “non-renunciation”. We shouldn’t surrender our desires to the system, or renounce them to become a good subj
In what sense mouldbreaking? What came before it?
The dominant stance before ‘68, was a kind of authoritarianism which was radically opposed to desire. Not only the right, but a lot of the left were like this. Authoritarians reject desire and identify with various images of order and propriety. Because they repress their own desire in order to conform, they become afraid of desire. So they look for scapegoats—other people who they think are having too much enjoyment, not renouncing enough. In Deleuzian theory this is associated with reactive desire, fixed identities and ‘microfascist’ tendencies. A quick skim through the comments on news sites will show how active this type of personality still is.
But, at least on the surface, desire is something which capitalism seems keen to embrace.
Yes. Today, the dominant stance of the capitalist system is a bit different. Capitalism has used the aesthetics and language of ‘68 to elaborate new forms of domination. People are told to be empowered, to be who they can be, to make the most of opportunities. People are meant to be rational subjects, aiming for “success” in terms of conventional goals. In many ways, it’s a recuperation of the outburst of ‘68.
But scratch the surface and it’s at least as repressive as the old authoritarianism, because there is no space for difference past a certain point. Not only is difference not recognised, but it’s seen as a threat, a disruption. It has to be excluded absolutely from public spaces, or even from life itself. This is still a renunciation of desire. The underlying desires are subordinated to the ‘self’ and its life-project, they’re suppressed in the name of the person (the good subject) someone is trying to become. Whereas the desires should be deciding what kind of people we’re trying to become.
So what is presented as a ‘liberation of desire’ is really nothing of the sort?
No. At the moment, for most people, the system is deciding. So desire is allowed, but only if it’s a recognised desire. Not to desire squats where there are empty buildings, graffiti where there are blank walls, or free parties where the cars are meant to be. Not to desire land rights in Chiapas, electricity in Soweto. Deleuze is looking for a world composed only of networks. Capitalism uses networks, embedded within hierarchical structures of knowledge and power.
Desire is revolutionary because, when it follows its course, it leads outside the various social apparatuses such as capitalism and the state. It causes people to form combinations, points of energy, configurations of force which aren’t accountable to dominant social norms or systems.
‘Configurations of force’ sounds more ontological than subjective (ie. to do with the nature of existence rather than perception)
Deleuzian revolutionary desire isn’t the same as conscious desire. It’s about specific desires people have, but it’s also a kind of general force, like the Force in Star Wars. And it’s a term for ‘assemblages’, for the production of connections. All the specific desires and assemblages are expressions of the underlying force of desire, its ‘differenciation’ as Deleuze says, its splitting into difference. But some of these expressions flow smoothly from the underlying force, and some of them turn against it, or get trapped in fixities which block it. At the base level, desire is always revolutionary, because flows of becoming escape particular orders – desire as force is always revolutionary. But desires can be turned against themselves – turned into a desire to suppress desire.
Desire is revolutionary when it is:
[The] schizorevolutionary type or pole that follows the lines of escape of desire; breaches the wall and causes flows to move; assembles its machines and its groups-in-fusion in the enclaves or at the periphery” (Anti-Oedipus)
There’s something about this which feels tremendously revolutionary to me. It’s almost possible to feel horizons opening up, other worlds becoming visible. It implies that everyone matters. We’re all part of the great flow of desire. We shouldn’t be valued by how closely we conform to some particular model. Each of us is a ‘singularity’ as Deleuze calls it, a unique point in the flow of desire, and at the same time part of this flow.
It sounds quite individualistic.
On the one hand, it’s an ‘egoist’ stance, a bit like Stirner. It’s a middle finger to the people telling us to conform and fit in. But it’s also a deeply compassionate stance, looking for the magic of desire in others, the combinations of affirmative power, rather than their usefulness or social position. And it’s a stance which allows us to embrace change and becoming, but at the same time, to reject unwanted changes, to distinguish becoming from capture. It’s not simply the replacement of one dominant system by another. It’s a world where all worlds fit, a world where everyone makes their own world.
This is a theory which speaks to those of us on the outside or on the margins – those of us who feel radically alienated from the dominant system – that our desires matter, that what we are matters. It cuts like a scythe through the ideologies which say that we only matter if we’re productive, or conformist, or successful, or law-abiding. And against the common view that life can’t go on without renunciation, it offers a vision of a different world, a world without renunciation, without hierarchy or control, without hatred for difference, without exclusion or marginalisation.
Is there a danger with a desire that is necessarily parochial rather than universal? For instance it is quite possible to imagine a desire that is not reactive (it affirms newness, makes novel connections, is horizontal, etc) but is nonetheless one that is more or less indifferent to the plight of the powerless and dispossessed.
I think you’re right, that it’s possible in a Deleuzian approach for someone to actively desire something which is unsustainable or unjust, or at least indifferent as you say. It’s possible but not common, because Deleuzian theory rejects a lot of the dominant configurations as reactive –I guess we’d be getting into issues of the extent to which desires constructed through mass consumer society are active, and whether they’d persist in the absence of capitalist machineries for managing desire.
There are several resources in Deleuzian theory for addressing these kinds of things. The first is that Deleuzian desire constructs a kind of meta-ethics of supporting active desire. In a sense, an active desire which is educated, which is aware of the forces which threaten it, will form a general opposition to hierarchical forces and to forces which produce scarcity. Secondly, people are seen as divisible, molecular selves with connections to other people, objects and so on. Compassion therefore is most likely part of desire. It isn’t something counterposed to our desires. Thirdly, there’s a critique of desire within capitalism. Capitalism doesn’t really believe in desire. It believes in preferences and self-interest. Capitalism tries to manipulate desire, to turn it into self-interest or market demand. Of course this means that there’s always scarcity, that people are always competing, and that people will consume unsustainably unless something stops them. Deleuze rejects this view of desire. He thinks desire is primordially abundant and affirmative, not scarce. It’s about forming connections, not possessing.
You may have partially answered this question but what about the argument that addressing some of the world’s most pressing problems (global warming, the unequal distribution of wealth etc) necessarily entail people in the first world being prepared to give up their desires for certain luxuries?
I think Deleuze would expect liberation to come from the rebellions of the excluded and oppressed, not from the in-group renouncing its privileges. Deleuze is in favour of diffuse, decentralised forms of power, which are focused on local intensities and not on “power-over” – the band or pack, the war-machine and so on. When power takes this form, the local group will defend itself militantly from exploitation and inequality, and from the destruction of its environment, which is a site of lived intensity. Look at the Mapuche, the OPM or the Zapatistas, or the Bougainville revolution, or the Chipko movement. This is what happens when local groups act on intensities using diffuse power. On the other hand, Deleuze is all for the in-group renouncing its privileges – it’s called “becoming-minoritarian” in his theory – and sees this as a broadening and liberation of desire, an escape of desire from fixed categories.
I think the problem is mostly apparent rather than real. Deleuze rejects renunciation, and therefore rejects the line of response which sees a law, a normative code, a generalised repression as the guarantee that desire will not exceed what is just or sustainable. Again in capitalist theory, we’re assumed to be self-interested first of all, and any kind of concern for others has to be imparted later – through market forces or deterrent punishments or some other controlling force. I’m not convinced that this works for a number of reasons. One of these is, once certain people have the concentrated power in their hands to force others to conform, why wouldn’t they use this power for self-interest instead of the common good? Another is that this kind of attitude—the constant suspicion of others, the vigilance of constantly looking out for free-riders and shirkers—is actually corrosive of compassion. It produces reactive closure. Think of those authoritarians in the comments sections again. They go on and on about concern for others, about not doing what one wants, but they don’t seem to have much compassion for anyone else. This might be because their worldview has misanthropy and scarcity built into it.
But scarcity from an environmental perspective is real.
Deleuze and environmentalism might seem a bad fit, but there are radical ecological theorists whose concepts are very similar to Deleuze’s—Feral Faun and John Moore for example, or Derrick Jensen’s “Beyond Hope”, or the article “Desire is Speaking” in the Earth First! journal Do or Die. It all depends where one situates the locus of active desire. If we think of desire in terms of forming connections, living the intensity of lifeworlds, creating spaces of existential abundance, then there’s a lot of overlap between Deleuze and deep ecology.
Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in September 2009 by Routledge.