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Sandy's Sister, "A Letter to Bifo"

A Letter to Bifo
Sandy's Sister

Dear Bifo,

What are we welcoming you to in post-Sandy New York? How to welcome a friend to a disaster site, especially when the disaster is surpassing our capacity to see it, yet alone bear witness, or act up to it, in response or relation to it.

What is the context here in New York, you and many other comrades must be wondering?

The storms came and went, and we are living in their wake. The city is what you would expect after a very intensive period of resistance, the energies have dispersed but remain tethered. The struggles have coalesced around a few more focused initiatives. What exploded last Fall here in the city is clearly not finished. A lot of people remain involved on an almost daily basis and at this moment, a lot of the work of the last year has translated into organizing relief efforts from the grounds of the most devastated parts of the city.

Of course many involved in the occupation drifted away, beyond those who lost their encampments, some out of exhaustion, others who simply lost the thread, others at the inability to find what they came looking for, and many others because of the daily grind or toll of being a human being, having to pay rent, taking care of friends, family members, health problems, depression, work, bills, payments, loans, debt, everything that ails us, the structural adjustments inherited from the neoliberal counter-revolution.

Of course, the recent elections and the fear that things could turn even more dire corralled some of the more liberal elements involved. But there is a sense, at least among those who saw what we saw here, that there is no way to return back to a 'normal state of things', especially after the sustained though fragmentary experiences of a more communal collective public or common existence in the streets of the city.

The often mundane and sometimes willfully ignorant continuation of activities in the city (cultural ones least exempted) without any sense of what we are living through, both the joys and severe disappointments of what unfolded on the streets of the city last year, is sometimes unbearable. Those institutions, and those who work in them, who found a way to talk themselves out of that moment last Fall, to treat it as something exterior, sometimes with an approving but eventually patronizing and distancing attitude, as well as those not allowing or fearful of things getting out of hand, who discovered the police inside themselves or in the places where they derive their income, in their spaces of work.

Most times it's not the police that one has a hard time looking at in the eyes, but more so, those closer to one's circle of activities who took no part, or at best found their own way to feed off it without risking anything. It is not a moral problem or even an ethical one simply, it is also about a disconnection of not having shared something very powerful. Like a birth or death of a loved one which one is living through or after.

And those challenges are just a fragment of the picture. There are interpersonal challenges, the politics of small groups; dynamics of race, class, gender; the tugs and pulls of practical "consequential" work and those with less immediately visible results; speed and action versus contemplation, slowness, perceived inaction, human strike.

And its less the old tug of war between art and activism, and more the rejection of both as we have known them.

The hurricane brought with it a new energy into the city.

In the Sunday leading up to the arrival of Sandy, one had the epiphany that it was not that people are more willing to believe that the world will end than they are able to imagine the end of capitalism. Rather, the only way people can imagine the end of capitalism is through some catastrophic or apocalyptic change. Of course, they should look to Fukushima to dispel that hope or belief. But nevertheless, there was a certain giddiness and pleasure of people finding solidarity waiting in long lines to purchase whatever would be needed for the coming storm. And this almost palpable collective sense that only such a natural disastercould truly stop this monstrous machine which enslaves most of us. In its aftermath, of course, all of lower manhattan was crippled without electricity. Some parts of the city fared well while others lost everything. This I don't have to tell you, as it is likely people outside New York saw much more of the spectacular images of the damage from the storm than those who live inside the city. A friend of our's whose family lives in Syria spoke to us of frantic phone calls from relatives, convinced after seeing the images on television that their son may have perished in the flooding.

Immediately once the hurricane's damage became apparent, someone wrote in a local paper that these events only prove the need for a big state and so would boost the election of Barack Hussein Obama. Ironic that both in the aftermath of Fukushima as well as here in New York, those most able to aid and help those devastated are not the state nor their corporate sponsors but individuals acting collectively. Occupy Sandy outdoes the Red Cross and FEMA and Walmart.

But even here, questions emerge about how the intense efforts of those taking part in Occupy Sandy or the networks of solidarity and mutual aid in post-Fukushima Japan are also in some way fulfilling the unremunerated work of social reproduction that the neoliberal state relies upon to prop itself up.

I don't mean to say this is work that the state should do. No, this social reproduction is work that the state and corporations have never done, but rely upon, increasingly so, to maintain themselves. Wages for Housework? Wages for Mutual Aid?

Can these processes and networks of mutual aid retain some antagonism to the neo-liberal state through a production of a common(s) or do they remain as isolated efforts of assuaging the externalized costs of the violent systems which govern our lives?

As some struggle to invent new forms of solidarity in the post storm context, other comrades have been involved in attempting to target the negative commons of capitalism not through the ecological dimension but by addressing debt. And different campaigns and actions have emerged to raise the possibility of a debt strike, student debt strike, consumer debt, housing debt, .... . There are also efforts to take matters into people's own hands, by collective purchasing of junk debt, which collection agencies or others buy and then try to collect upon. In this case, money is raised to purchase the debt and then forgive it under the banner of a rolling people's jubilee.

In both cases, the question emerges, can a desiring community, or a process of conscious collective subjectivation emerge as a response to the negative commons of capitalism? And more importantly, can whatever we are doing alter the sphere of social consciousness, the daily life, rhythm, and social relations of the inhabitants of the city. And what happens when these alterations are the result of impacts of ecological ruin and financial ruin rather than conscious collective action? Or when the conscious collective action is tied to the rhythms and narratives of a capitalist media and an ever unfolding capitalist crisis which knows no end?

Is this part of the totally new brand of communism which you thought would surface as a form of necessity and as the inevitable outcome of the stormy collapse of the capitalist system? If so, how to build up the social consciousness of this? Or is it, as you wrote in your book "After the Future" a few years ago

"The fantastic collapse of the economy is certainly going to change things in daily life, you can bet on it. But is this change consciously elaborated? Is this connected with some conscious collective action? It is not. This is why neoliberal fanaticism, notwithstanding its failure, is surviving and driving the agenda of the powers of the world."

Earlier in the same book you outline the following questions emerging from what you called the zero zero decade 2000-2010.

a. how can we imagine a future of conscious collective subjectivation?
b. how will it be possible to create a collective consciousness in the age of precariousness and the fractalization of time?
c. how will it be possible to practice social autonomy in a world where capitalism has instituted irreversible trends of destruction?

I have wondered what have the sequence of events and uprisings, sparked in Sidi Bouzid after Bouazzizi's self-immolation brought as response or elucidation to these questions for you?

Moreover, in the seminars of 2009 at 16 Beaver, and in your recent writings, you retain an almost obsessive insistence on inventions in language, modes of irony, and poetry as necessary elements for provoking or exploring the limits of our imaginary. Interestingly, the struggles over the last years, maybe more than anything I have mentioned exposed some of the limits of that social imagination.

Of course, the police and the state resorted to the same imaginary of provocation, extra-legal legal measures, and when all else fails, violence. Of course, the capitalist press has no imaginary to speak of, other than trying to fit these struggles into the existing paradigms of political efficacy, movements, campaigns, and eventual absorption into liberal democratic processes which could reform "the system" or systems. And of course this immense climate change which mark these uprisings has been framed, even by sympathetic commentators (and even from those involved), often in the language of historical movements or the alter globalization struggles, sometimes inadvertantly foreclosing emergent or nascent political innovations.

Those of us struggling within continue to have to grapple with our own imaginary. Beside an abstract idea of global justice, less inequality, ... what is the world we project, what is that horizon? Are we capable of replacing representative democracy with more direct democratic processes? Can democracy be disentangled from the capitalist and nation-state assemblage it has been tethered to for so long?

Rather than project something into the future, these movements over the last year or so have worked to emphatically reject the negative commons of neoliberalism (comprised of the toxic debt, waste, and ecological ruin which are its collateral damage). Here together with friends, we have collectively explored the premise of the commons as a footing for this global social justice we struggle for. We have relied on refusal, disobedience, indignation, and revocation to find a language to describe the social attitudes which can overcome the despair you have also spoken of when confronted with the enormity of challenges and complex forms of violence and destruction which persist globally. We have considered what could be the cultural shifts and social practices which could compose a non-capitalist life.

But we are also confronted with our own limits of a better future. Ironically, a very source of strength of these struggles, which is no longer believing in the future, in a progressive course, as if by nature things just improve, also becomes a potential limitation. How to avoid the mistakes of reconstructing a futurist "progressive" perspective, while maintaining an idea of a horizon, some horizon. And if our horizon cannot be one of disaster, catastrophe, apocalypse, or fear what could it be?

What about this question of language, poetry, irony, and the imaginary? And what to do with this question of a future without a future?

It seems that this ongoing catastrophe is marked by small incremental steps toward an abyss. For example, here in the US, in the Bush years, it began with a Patriot Act, the camp in Guantanamo Bay, renditions and black prisons. It continues now under Obama with additional laws allowing interminable detainment of US citizens without charges (something previously preserved only for detainees of other countries' nationals) and even extra judicial killings and assassinations. Ecology wise, it begins with a depleting ozone layer of the 80's, Chernobyl, the increased destruction of rain forests, global warming, seed privatization and destruction of biodiversity, to this summer's report of the alarming rate of melting polar ice caps, and most recently hurricane season as a common phenomenon in New York City. The Gulf Oil Spill, Fukushima, and the countless other disasters which amplify the toxic mix of global corporate rule and the apparent inability to stop the course of this "progress" are staggering. But the changes appear in increments and with time amount to a very different world but one we don't have access to. It is not unlike what our friend Jalal Toufic talks about when he speaks of the things which do not accede to awareness during extreme situations, and which he claims, art and writing can resurrect.

So there you go, I have written you about art as well, and with some affection and affirmation. But what I wanted to ask you about was activism. I was amused by what you had written about Lenin's depressive episodes, and activism in general, a term which you connect to the counter-globalization movement and suggest can be a kind of depressive narcissistic response to this growing inability to confront a catastrophic capitalist reality.

Further in the same book, you speculated:

"Scattered insurrections will take place in the coming years, but we should not expect much from them. They’ll be unable to touch the real centers of power because of the militarization of metropolitan space, and they will not be able to gain much in terms of material wealth or political power. As the long wave of counter-globalization moral protests could not destroy neoliberal power, so the insurrections will not find a solution, not unless a new consciousness and a new sensibility surfaces and spreads, changing everyday life, and creating Non-Temporary Autonomous Zones rooted in the culture and consciousness of the global network."

Well, those insurrections have come. And with them, the attempts at instituting non-temporary autonomous zones through the occupations of squares and public spaces. These sites became useful not only as places of convergence, assembly, and conversation, but also as immensely powerful symbolic sites for staging, in some sense, a desire to change this everyday life, to discover or invent collective processes of withdrawal from activities (i.e., work) which colonize our time but are meaningless, unfulfilling, and cumulatively destructive.

Of course, occupations of space were nothing new in the political vocabulary of the previous century, but the processes which emerged from North Africa were truly of another order and magnitude.

Unfortunately, the liberated spaces of the occupations became temporary after the militarized evictions and now we struggle to discover what the results of these experiences can produce. Were the millions that took to the streets depressives, who even in deposing dictators, ultimately and hopelessly confront their own inability to change the material economic forces which dictate their growing or continued immiseration? Or are these multitudes on the streets a massive social awakening? What constitutes political activity today? What constitutes poetic activity today? And with all of this activity, where can we discover the potency of the necessary withdrawal we have spoken about in the past.

These and other ruminations preoccupying me at the moment, we await your arrival,

with love and solidarity,
Sandy's Sister