Towards a history of Midwestern instability

We are not arguing for civil war. In fact, we find the idea somewhat preposterous. Like the arguments for or against violence, this begins from the wrong place. Rather, we start from the understanding that civil war is, that the political paradigm in which we live also begins with the same certainty, and that this certainty is coupled with the paradoxical frenzy to exclude it, and, when that fails, to manage it. Everyone who begins to organize themselves — and who gathers some kind of power in that organizing— already has this intelligence, explicit or not.

Explicitly or implicitly, we see that much of the “revolutionary” tradition contains within it a strong handed effort to conceal those forms of conflict considered dirty, backwards, stupid, and irresponsible, which become so precisely because they contain inappropriable elements, vital relations which they cannot alter without killing them, because those are the relations that tie them to the world. Revolutionism is a particular avant-garde of the larger managerial tradition we have traced back to the Athenian democrats. The typical revolutionary says “everything about us is new. We the are the bedrock of a new history.” They hope that by saying so, they will escape the conflicts around them through energetic proclamations of novelty and inevitability.

We will call the basic function of the larger democratic tradition the “democratic consensus machine.” By referring to this function as a machine, we are not speaking metaphorically. Consider what Lewis Mumford said about naming the archaic empires “megamachines:” “If a machine can be defined more or less in accord with the classic definition of Reuleaux, as a combination of resistant parts, each specialized in function, operating under human control to transmit motion and to perform work, then the human machine was a real machine.” Specifically, we define the democratic consensus machine as that which excludes or neutralizes from the outset anything which is a threat to it by controlling the form and access points of the discourse, by channeling those repulsive elements into more manageable forms of expression or subject groups. The democratic consensus machine is limitlessly productive. It can endlessly consume local problematic discourse because it isn’t tied to the concrete. It maintains a strictly functional relationship to ideas.

The democratic consensus machine is, like discourse, not just about “what is said.” The machine requires that risky persons be excluded, opaque connections be severed, and uncertain environments be illuminated. Consensus requires, before “discourse” can properly circulate, a controlled and predictable group of bodies whose movements are fluid and translucent. One of the founders of the co-op movement in Minneapolis remarked that it is easy to have consensus in closed meetings when you’ve already excluded everyone who disagrees with you. Very true, but it’s still more than that. Roosevelt came closer when he called America and its industrial storehouse of material the “arsenal of democracy.” Since its founding, democracy has always been an “arsenal” and its relation to its weapons is essential and not accidental.

This democratic, or “revolutionary,” mythologizing and restructuring reaches a peak of sophistication in the Twin Cities, whose residents often pride themselves on their “progressive history.” It’s time to apply our concept to the history of the Twin Cities in order to discover the meaning of that “progress,” something which always seemed dubious to us, given how many disjunctions arise from the briefest exposition of the history of the city.

Take the example of the conflicts between Natives and colonizers, most famously those conflicts involving the Dakota here in the Twin Cities, where the Minnesotan, in order to be progressive but remain civil, is forced to adopt wholly paradoxical and incompatible positions. In the historical narrative that centers around the idea of progress, the progressive Minnesotan will proclaim how “terrible” the internment camps and the largest mass execution in U.S. history were, while both ignoring the popular political ideas of the colonizers that resonate with their own “progressive” tendencies and denying any legitimacy to those who fought back by generally denouncing “violence.” Yet, one is allowed to “understand” the fact that the Dakota would fight back, condescendingly implying that they were basically forced to do it, denying them any determination in the matter, but then one is supposed to simultaneously be appalled by the fact that they would take hostages in New Ulm or kill non-hostiles, further implying in this way that the European ideals about how war and peace should be done apply universally, and that the colonizer’s notion of humanism or “just war” should have been in the forefront of the minds of those fighting to save their land from invaders and plunderers. In accounting for more recent history, one can say that it is “bad” that the police unfairly target Natives, but then one is supposed to accept the fact that the colonizer’s notions of law and order have legitimacy at all, and disapprove of the American Indian Movement’s more “violent” tactics. It turns out that the old policy of “kill the Indian, save the man” still applies in Minnesota so long as we restructure the history of this state according to pre-legitimated ideals of “civility” and “normality.”

We must emphasize that, as we investigate the conflicts that plagued democrats and progressives in Minnesota’s history, we are not doing so out of a love of history or a desire to “tell it like it really was.” Rather, the radical forgetting that characterizes this history is a necessary prerequisite for the democrat or revolutionary of today, who must repeatedly and actively erase difference to sustain their own identity. The revolutionary of today, like the revolutionary of the past, must either forget or restructure the violence that got them into their privileged position, from which they can now denounce the ruptures that threaten them. This is just as true for the Bernie Sanders progressives as it is for the anarchist labor organizer.

The necessary historical myths of these revolutionary democrats in Minnesota are that there was a unified progressive movement and a unified labor movement. The present mega co-ops and non-profits owe their legitimation to the first, while the labor groups and socialists owe theirs to the second. The liberals and the radicals, the two mythical creatures who emerge from these fairy tales, extract what little historical substance they have from these barely cohesive stories.

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The rally against mining in Haiphong. May 9th, 1972.

Each only exists as a myth insofar as it suppresses the memory of the internal conflicts the myths were propagated to pacify. Let’s look at the anti-war movement. Beginning on May 9th, 1972, after Nixon ordered the mining of Haiphong, Minneapolis experienced some of the most intense street conflicts since the 30s. The real catalyst wasn’t the events of the Vietnam war, but a local event: the dedication of the Cedar Square West housing project. The high-point of the Twin Cities anti-war movement was more immediately spurred by a local spatial concern — a spatial concern that isn’t exactly over, we might add, despite the lack of attention or energy invested in it. Just last year, in March 2015, residents staged a rent strike. One striker said “they treat us like un-human beings here,” remarking that, as refugees, they are required to pay thousands of dollars of rent to live in a building where “residents are being charged maintenance costs just to keep their apartments livable” and their cars are repeatedly towed even with their residency permits. Last year, it was only a small group of residents defending themselves against these sharks.

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The scene on May 10th after the police attacked demonstrators the day before. 1972.

In 1972, a large group of demonstrators attacked the police in front of the Plaza with eggs and stones, shutting down the dedication ceremony before being driven back by riot clubs and confined to the sidewalk. The larger renovation project of the Riverside Plaza was soon halted due to the persistence of such actions. The anti-war protest happening concurrently at the university only needed to be guarded by ten university police officers, so sure they were that there would be no confrontations and that demonstrators would confine themselves to their allotted space. The next day, some demonstrators planned to occupy a recruitment center, which, to their dismay, they found empty. They moved to the Armory, mixed with other crowds to become a group of 3000, and began tearing down fences and building barricades. Someone from the fraternity across the street lit a car on fire.  A helicopter was called in to spray tear gas on the crowd, and after the gas dissipated, the demonstrators started tearing fences and gathering debris to build a barricade blocking Washington Avenue. With no end in sight to the crowd’s growing anger toward police, the National Guard was finally called in because, in the words of the police chief, “in the days of the draft you had a more broad-based military. … It was very difficult for police to identify with campus protesters, while many of the Guard could identify with the students.” An article in The Minnesota Daily reports what happened next:

The Committee for an Open and Peaceful Education, a group of students, faculty and administrators formed to communicate campus action in response to Vietnam, called for a teach-in that was held May 17-18. […] ‘There was this feeling that things had been going too far,’ recalled COPE member Hyman Berman. With teach-ins, Berman said, ‘We’d channel the energies people had in protesting the war toward positive things.’ By the time of the teach-in, campus tensions had passed.” Roberta Malles, one of the original co-opers, similarly remarked that “the food co-ops were a way to express that energy [of the protests and riots] in a positive way: ‘Let’s build something. Let’s take over our lives. There’s no bosses here. We can run this on our own. We can eat minimally processed, minimally packaged food and we can start thinking about building other economic units and dropping out, you know, who really needs to have a straight job?’

Demonstrators block Washington Avenue Bridge. May, 1972.

For the “progressivists” and their “grassroots and collaborative” capitalism, this means first suppressing or altering the image of the 1975 co-op wars, the farce between the most caricatured elements of the Left: the progressive pacifists and the hardline Marxists. Only in the Twin Cities could you see a street fight between a group of co-op volunteers joining hands to defend their store against a group of Marxist “revolutionaries” armed with pipes, who contend that the store should also shelve sugar, meat, and canned food to efface their “bourgeois privileges” and serve food that the “working class wants.” The so-called “Co-op Organization,” or CO, would go on to occupy each co-op in the city, assaulting the workers, slashing tires, firebombing cars, all to push their stated goals: “to end worker control, greater discipline among co-op workers, accountability to a centralized leadership, an end to ‘hippie health food,’ and a commitment to address real ‘working class concerns.’” You know, real working class concerns like the ability to drink coca-cola. No form of torture could force us to choose between the quixotic grassroots capitalists and the hardcore Marxist canned foods enthusiasts. And we don’t have to because both groups were fazed out. None of this even mattered by the eighties, when, after the “victory” of the progressivists and the return to normal production, “[t]he co-ops had begun hiring professional managers, abandoning the tradition of worker-owners and working members. Decisions were no longer strictly democratic. Instead, power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the board of directors” (The Co-op Wars).

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Anti-CO bumper sticker printed by the North Star People’s Press. 1978.

Our interest in the story lies solely in the fact that even the most wholesome history of the Twin Cities is filled with confrontation from the beginning. Beneath murals of flowers and diverse consumers lies a series of ridiculous street fights and closed-door meetings, exclusions, car bombs, and battles. When the present managers talk about “serving their communities,” we must remember that these people did not win a war, but that they are dead-set on managing one. One must pan out to see that the co-op project in the wider context was conceived from the very beginning as a “positive” outlet for the increasingly intense instances of confrontation in the city’s ongoing civil war. Internal conflict did not destroy the student student; democratic consensus processes turned their energy toward positive things like volunteering for high-end grocery stores. Revolutionary elitism made the rest don sunglasses and demand coca cola in those same stores. Hurrah, for this is the valiant history of the Left in the Twin Cities.

A CO-member throws a stone toward a co-op at a demonstration. Ca 1975-6.

Other conflicts and divisions are simply erased from the history of the “progressive metropolis.” The struggles, lives, and deaths of some appear as a chaotic blip in history, a mistake, mere white noise that distracts from the real issues. In 1946, The Nation editor Carey McWilliams wrote, “Minneapolis is the capital of anti-Semites in the United States. In almost every walk of life an iron curtain separates Jews from non-Jews. . .“ Not surprising in a city where the pastor of the First Baptist Church could publicly praise the racist Silver Shirts gang and read passages from Mein Kampf on the pulpit. The Teamsters union like to take credit for being generally against the Silver Shirts, and surely their union guard’s threats had an effect on the ability of the Silver Shirt’s to hold rallies, but it was more likely the direct interference from Jewish gangsters that finally shut them out of public life. David Berman, one of the more powerful of the Jewish mobsters, learned that some Silver Shirts were having a rally at a nearby Elks’ Lodge, which had been decorated with Nazi flags and posters of Hitler. When the leader called for all the “Jew bastards” in the city to be expelled, Berman and his associates burst into the room and set upon them with brass knuckles and clubs. After ten minutes, they had emptied the hall. His suit covered in blood, Berman took the microphone and announced, “This is a warning. Anybody who says anything against Jews gets the same treatment. Only next time it will be worse,” and then “[h]e put an exclamation point at the end of his speech by firing his gun in the air” (Elizabeth Johanneck.) After Berman broke up two more rallies, there were no more public Silver Shirt meetings in Minneapolis.

In the summers of 1966 and 1967 there were riots in the Northside neighborhood, each of which began with a small scuffle or argument and exploded outwards. A resident of the Northside describes the neighborhood in the movie Cornerstones: A History of North Minneapolis in the following way: “[a]n invisible wall exists around much of the area north of Olson Highway and west of the river. The wall shuts people into overly crowded neighborhoods which lack the civic amenities provided in other sections of the city. The wall shuts out the larger community’s concern for, interest in and even awareness of Northside problems.” During the riots, shops were looted and burned, police were chased out of the neighborhood with stones and bottles, and the home of a congressman was attacked with molotov cocktails.

National Guardsmen patrolling a North Minneapolis neighborhood. 1967.

Some still claim today that these riots were “senseless” and have the thinly concealed racialized conception of angry black residents “burning down their own neighborhood” as one article in the Minneapolis Mirror put it. These same people claim that the riots were the “nail in the coffin” for the neighborhood, which was only afterwards left for dead. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For one, black residents were not the “owners” of almost any property in the area. The Federal Housing Administration prevented such a possibility by the well-known policy that withheld loans to groups that may contribute to the mixing of “inharmonious racial groups.” Second, much of the neighborhood had already been gutted and left for dead by the city planners of the urban renewal project, so many of the fires burned in already empty buildings. The site of the 2015 occupations, the 4th Precinct, was one of major sites of the riots. After the unrest in 1966, the residents bought the building (which would later become the police station) and turned it into a social center called The Way. This history of the building was kept alive at the recent occupations, but with a sparkly clean image free of the conflict that brought it into being.

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Fire on Plymouth Ave, site of the 4th Precinct occupation. 1967.

Then came the second of two consecutive summers of unrest on Plymouth Avenue, “Minnesota’s place name for division and conflict” (Cornerstones: A History of North Minneapolis). This seems to be an appropriate title for the street that experienced two summers of intense rioting, police occupations, and a conflict without any consistent representation in the media. During these 1967 riots, the mayor called in the National Guard who remained stationed in North Minneapolis and other predominantly black neighborhoods in the Twin Cities for over a week. Harry Moss, a member of The Way, told the newspapers: “Your stained glass windows keep you from seeing the scum of our society,” and pointed to general unhappiness as the catalyst of the riots: “if you didn’t have the cold winters of do-nothing, you wouldn’t have the long hot summers of violence.” Clarence Benford, a 20-year-old participant told the newspapers “[w]e felt that we had nothing to lose, no jobs, no interest from elected officials, overcharging by many of the merchants on Plymouth Avenue, no decent playground facilities, very few recreational outlets and with many of the families living in housing not fit for human habitation.” In this revolt without issues and without representation, in addition to the ambiguity of racial factors involved, there’s nothing to democratize, nothing to sell, nothing but a specific local contestation and disaffection, and thus, nothing in the eyes of the Left.

The Twin Cities labor movement was similarly wracked with internal division and conflict. It could uncontroversially be said that the “worker’s movement” really only lasted from 1933 to 1938. We aren’t interested here in the glory of the 574 or of any other group. Our sole interest lies in the forms of organization made possible by disruption and the ways in which the “leaders” tried to manage them.

These tellings always overemphasize the role of the “leaders” and their “consciousness,” and, in so doing, de-emphasize the self-organization of the people on the street, of the militant women, or of the other parties present. The typical account offers the following facts, most of which we lifted from Charles Rumford Wallace’s American City: A Rank-and-File History. In 1934, Minnesota found itself run by the “progressive governor” Olson of the Farmer-Labor Party who ostensibly supported the strikers, but later proved how unreliable such a promise is from a governor. Minneapolis was then a well known “open-shop” town, which meant that strikers could not shut down businesses. This was largely due to the Citizen’s Alliance, “one of the most powerful and efficiently organized employers’ associations in the United States[…] [w]ith a permanent and well-paid staff, a corps of undercover informers, and a membership of eight hundred businessmen,” which, according to Wallace, “had for nearly a generation successfully fought and broken every major strike in Minneapolis.”

On May 16, 1934, the truckers, led by the Trotskyist chapter local 574, began to strike in Minneapolis. They would ride around in cars looking for trucks bringing in commodities and stand in their way, which was very effective. On May 19, fighting broke out between the strikers and the police, two of whom were taken away unconscious. On the 21st, more fighting broke out, but this time with the addition of the Citizens’ Alliance fighting the strikers. The police brandished their weapons but were unable to fire in the confusion. That night, the Citizens’ Alliance vowed to defeat the “Red Dictator” and lured strikers into an alley to beat them. On the 22nd, more fighting, and this time two deputies (including a member of the Citizens Alliance) were killed. This was the “Battle of Deputies Run.”

“Battle of Deputies Run”. Downtown Minneapolis. May 21st, 1934.

On May 25th, the strikers approved a negotiation that would give them recognition and reinstatement, but it was only two months before striking broke out again on July 17th, when the strikers realized that their agreement only covered the truckers and not the warehouse workers. This strike was even more brutal than the first. The picketers began by deciding not to arm themselves on the line, while the police took the offensive. On the 20th, the police attacked strikers with shotguns, killing two and injuring sixty-seven. Olson sent in the National Guard, which seized union headquarters and arrested those perceived to be leaders. The strike concluded on August 21st after arbitration between the union, the employers, the Citizens’ Alliance, and the federal labor mediator decided on terms.

There’s no question that the reformist Farmer-Labour Party wanted nothing more than to suppress the more spontaneous and vital forms of revolt, but the same Trotskyists many still praise for “organizing the movement” were the ones who, after 1935, turned their backs on the new militant workers and opted for control of reformist campaigns alongside the Farmer-Labour Party. Right after their “victory,” Grant Dunne, one of the three Trotskyist Dunne brothers said “[w]e did not get all we thought we ought to have, but the union is recognized, it is now well established and — what is better — the machinery of arbitration is established whereby disputes ought to be settled without trouble.” Minneapolis would never see a strike with such magnificent organization and passion again. It didn’t need to with the new “machinery of arbitration.”

The “militant labour movement” was defeated as quickly as it began. It only took Roosevelt one year to sign the National Labour Relations Act. The vital elements of the struggle were precisely the ones that the unions and labor organizations eventually squashed or reintegrated into electoral politics. In the facile accounts of the “radical” segments of the workers movement (Trotskyists, communists, anarcho-syndicalists), every event in the history of labor is either a victory or a betrayal, depending on “how radical” it is. What these lazy, valorizing histories fail to even ask if it was neither the swings of historical necessity nor the “betrayal” of some “reactionary” element, but rather the enframing of the worker subjectivity itself that defeated the workers movement. The door of possibility and experimentation that opened in 1934 was closed by the end of the next year and not because of the fascists or the police, but because of the labor union’s drive to get the “masses” out of the street and into the polls on one side; and by the “revolutionary leaders” vying for legitimate control and political representation on the other. Whenever a large group of people enter into the streets, and defend themselves from police, stable subjectivities expose themselves to an opening. It becomes a question of organization: how will we feed ourselves? How will we protect ourselves from the police, the Citizen’s Alliance, and the fascists? Where are the unemployed, the unemployable, the women, the children, and what are they doing? These questions will continue to come to the fore until the male white worker subjectivity is reinstituted and the experimental forms of organization can be reintegrated into party politics.

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Members of the Women’s Auxiliary cook food for strikers. Images like these have crystallized into the definitive portrayal of women as primarily “supporters” of men in times of crisis. An article on the strike on the “World Socialist Web Site”, or WSWS, says this about the women involved: “socialist perspective guided decisions made in the strike, including the mobilization of the wives, sisters and daughters of the coal yard drivers into the Women’s Auxiliary, which organized a field hospital to tend to workers wounded by police and hired thugs and prepared food for strikers and their families.”

The overemphasis on the more traditional roles of women in the Women’s Auxiliary, for instance, conceals the fact that women were also involved in the strike, in intimidating landlords who were threatening striking or unemployed tenants with eviction, and with fighting the Citizen’s Alliance and the police. Consider the following story from American City. According to Wallace, the Alliance would sometimes send decoys into the city for the strikers to confront and then fight them. He describes one such incident in the following way: “’This is a little job we have to do tonight, and some of you women pile in there with the men.’ There were always a lot of women around and looking for a little excitement; they got in. Then somehow, he or an accomplice got over to the dispatcher’s window and gave the picket captain instructions to go to the Tribune alley. Within ten minutes we got word that the three cars had been blocked into the alley and both the men and women unmercifully beaten with saps and night sticks.” In an article written by a member of the Auxiliary for the journal Revolutionary History, we discover the under-reported details about the role of women. We read that, yes, “Girls trained in office work took over the routine work. Others gave their heart and soul to the feeding of hungry droves of men.” But they also record that women “took up the cause on the line of battle” and then proceeds to list a series of terrible injuries received by the women on the frontlines.

She also writes about the scarcely reported marches organized by and led by women:

We marched from the Auditorium on Grant and 14th Streets straight down Nicollet Avenue. Led first by four women carrying our banner, followed by about 500 women, many of them sympathizers, we broke every traffic rule in Minneapolis. Crowds gathered along the sidewalk and followed the procession to the court house. We marched straight to the mayor’s office. A committee entered to present our demands upon the mayor or his emissary – Mr. Guise[…] The women, quiet and orderly during the whole proceedings, suddenly were infuriated by something. Inquiry disclosed that the chief of police had thought it smart to parade a batch of his special deputies down the same corridor the women were waiting in. Only quick thinking on the part of the committee saved those deputies from being very badly hurt. The mayor’s secretary arrived in surprisingly short time. The committee waited upon him. They got just what they expected – nothing. The demands were the immediate removal of Chief Johannes, the removal of all special deputies, and no further interference with pickets. The committee then left. The crowd was addressed by Frieda Charles, and dispersed in an orderly fashion.

She ends her article with a plea: “Let your women work in this class struggle. Their place is right along side of the men, shoulder to the wheel, fighting for their birthright.” Such a plea would largely go unheard. Even as the women were participating in these actions, one scarcely hears about anything besides their ability to help with “feeding the families of the men on strike until they would again be able to draw wages,” the necessity of which, according to this same author was “brought home to us very forcibly during the last few days.”

What is lost in the valorization of the “leaders of labor” is the self-determination and self-organization of the workers, and the affective and elective bonds between the actors on both sides. There is an element of pleasure in the immediacy of self-organizing in the street that is lost in the mobilization for electoral political campaigning. Consider these two quotes from both sides of the conflict: “Some of the boys from the Greek fraternities on the campus joined the police and Citizen’s Alliance forces with baseball bats on their shoulders, in defense of what they regarded as law and order,” (Eric Severeid, student) and “We took a vote and said ‘By God, we’ll go out on strike!’ We went out and tied up the town. I just got like a fanatic, like a religion. I didn’t care what happened” (Chris Moe, striker). A committee met after the alley incident to raise a “citizen’s army” whose purpose would be to “preserve law and order” (Charles Wallace). For the chief of police, Mike Johannes, “It was a religion to keep the streets of Minneapolis open.” Besides the joy of the street, there was also much hatred boiling up in the heat of that summer. The fact that the strikers killed two Citizen’s Alliance deputies during the “Battle of Deputies Run” before “Bloody Friday” is significant in this regard.

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Martial Law declared. Minneapolis. July, 1934.

The question that is utterly foreign to the conceptions of the Left is whether or not the worker’s movement’s limited demands and subjectivity were not perfectly compatible with evolving market technologies and capacities. It is no longer a question of how the labor movement was “defeated,” it is a question of how the outbreak of civil war was managed. Father Haas, one of the New Deal labor mediators, said, in a language worthy of Democritus and Aristotle, “A strike is like a operation. Of course it is not a good thing in itself. But when there is a diseased condition in an industry a strike may be necessary. The refusal of an employer to deal with a union, low wages and long hours are diseases in an industry. Very often the strike is the only way to remove these evils, and under these conditions it is wholly justified.” There was no grand betrayal or spectacular defeat, there was only the slow and uninspiring death of an event in demoralizing and impersonal polling and political campaigns. It isn’t surprising that, given the options of republicanism and labor in the polls, Minneapolis chose the first. The republicans were able, by 1938, to easily align themselves with the promises of the New Deal and integrate the demands of labor. The socialist vision of a reformed economy swallowed up the workers movement into the technical and political forms of organization evolving within welfare capitalism. And those forms had by that time more affective power than labor, more emotional weight.

Reintroducing the periphery: Rabble, Lumpen, Offal, and Refuse

Hegel already discovered that a class of poverty does not de facto make a “dangerous” class a “rabble,” provided they are well managed. “Poverty in itself does not reduce people to a rabble,” he said, “a rabble is created only by the disposition associated with poverty, by inward rebellion against the rich, against society, government, etc.” Many from the class of poverty will choose a different disposition, and not because they are “traitors,” but because “rabble” is a political and ethical disposition, not primarily an economic one.

Every “center” or unity has its rabble. Citizens have their refuse and criminals; reasonable people have their psychos and retards; civilized people have their savages and barbarians; proletariats and workers have their lumpen-proletariats and idlers. The latter terms in these sets very often have a merely negative character in relation to the first, so that they end up embodying massive groups of otherwise varied individuals. The criminal scum is made up of those who don’t respect the laws and mores of the citizens; the insane is made to represent those who don’t respect the logical or behavioral norms of the reasonable; savage is so broad a term as to include Northwest Indian tribes and Amazonian ones, whose way of life differs in the extreme.

In all these cases, the second group is defined by not being or not acting like the first group, or, in other words, by an exclusion based on lack of experience or lack of a property considered essential. Marx’s description of the lumpen-proletariat is instructive here:

Alongside decayed roues with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, pimps, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la boheme.

It’s the “in short” and “the whole…” in this passage that startles us. What do these people have in common that he can summarize them in this way? For Marx, it is simply the lack of being organizable individuals within his dialectical schema that binds them. Marx claims to have discovered the motor of history, the core around which it pivots: the antagonism of the classes. Yet, in doing so, he is forced to admit to the existence of the “indefinite, disintegrated mass” that make up the “scum, offal refuse of all classes.” All who attempt to erect a center, a neutral core, or a pivot in history must produce this surplus —which, in Marx’s case, was the quantitative majority of society—  and summarily exclude it. But instead of disappearing, it haunts the borders, threatening to enter the orderly constructions of the democrat, where it would wreck it with its disgraceful presence.

What causes the breakdown of the generality, the ideal, and the goal is the proliferation of different ways of speaking and of acting that come into some sort of contact with one another. Civil war is a centrifugal motor of history, which kicks and starts and needs to be rethought and resaid constantly. Beginnings without ends bloom endlessly out from the different ways people approach each other and their worlds.

Nothing was guaranteed when the striking truckers, women, and children poured out into the streets of Minneapolis, neither the victory of the proletariat nor the victory of the ballot. Either “victory,” were it possible, would bring about its own internal divisions and conflict. We are limited only by our potential. That’s ok with us. Our great passion is in bringing out what is magical in the shared world, those things that bloom from their own immediate relation to the world without reference to ideal, moral, or world historical mission. Magical because nothing promises beforehand that events will turn out one way or another. The unimaginable can erupt from the least expected of places, from a golden lamp or from the meeting of people outside a police station, but only if you’re ready to experience it. We will make even the smallest possible detail contend with the grandest schemes and stories. At every turn, we will expose the neutral parties to their own rejected periphery, and show just how partisan they truly are. Such is our own delirium.

Managerial fanaticism is a centripetal machine that integrates in order to manage and limit the expression of bodies according to pre-legitimated axioms, but it only intervenes into those same uncertain relations and is always incomplete. In such an unstable environment, management requires at all moments the improvement and acceleration of managerial techniques. Such is the manager’s delirium. Even the greatest of their totalities fail miserably to account for the most basic of everyday occurrences and the magical powers we see manifest in them. Civil war will exist whether or not you talk about it or deny it. Depending on how you conceive of difference, it can appear as a cesspool of disease and disaster, or as the promise of new experience. We need an intelligence that begins with what exists around us, without paying heed to what is supposed to matter.

But let us now examine, not the “truth” of the civic discourse about how to end civil war, as this has yet to occur, and could not possibly occur. Instead, we will try to find out how governing agents, or how democratic agents (i.e. police), have responded to it. We will argue that there is a tripartite strategy of reaction, each of which aspect has a corresponding term from the Greek. One, the democratic consensus machine, the goal of which is to produce homonoia, same-mindedness; two, nomos, normativity, or the event of appropriation, division, and allotment which founds the circulation of power; and three, oikonomia, management of the household, police, or the administration of life processes. We will consider each of these as a dispositio —forces that incline our dispositions. We refuse to talk of institutions and subjects; instead we will talk about dispositios and dispositions (see: Dispositio). It would be out of place in a text on difference to begin talking about “subjects.”

A dispositio, meaning direction, order, arrangement, refers to nothing tangible, but rather to the attempt to give bodies the tendency to act in certain ways, to point them in a direction spatially or discursively. A dispositio regulates the activity of variable dispositions in a matrix of civil war, reorienting them toward whatever activity is deemed more productive or rational. In treating them as such, we eschew any pretentions of totality. These are persistent strategies, not real, existing institutions.

But then there’s the lingering question of “who?” In discussing the history of civil war and its management, we haven’t yet encountered a stable subject, and that’s because there isn’t one. What defines us politically is how we maneuver and play the game of civil war. But that still doesn’t say much about the places and attachments articulated by political interplay. “Who?” is already a container. It assumes the existence of a subject and its identity with itself. If we want to take difference seriously and apply it rigorously, we can’t automatically ask “who” without first asking “how?” Before we start talking about the strategies that dispose bodies, we must start with our meaning of disposition.

Ethos, force, and investment

“Is the dance true? One will always be able to say so. But that’s not where its power lies.” (Jean-François Lyotard)

Most of what counts as thinking in the West is assault. Thought is conceived as that which puts a cage around phenomena, captures it, correctly categorizes everything we encounter.

But thought does not penetrate anything, neither the world nor the things in it. Thinking alone in an office is different from thinking on a walk, because thought is part of the world in which we dwell. Take a walk, at least open a window; our rooms are filled with stale air. There is difference. We begin there.

Perhaps we trust too much in beloved metaphors. “I see what you mean,” we say, meaning that the other’s meaning has been understood by us; “let’s see…” we say, as we consider a set of options; “I’ll see what I can do,” we say, when we mean to obtain an answer. For the eye, there is only the either-or of the presence or absence of the objects or facts presented to it. We think we know something when we can see it. It is there or it isn’t. But the eye has limitations. We only see what is presented to us and we can only properly see something when the object is immobile. When it moves, we must focus on it, follow it with the eye as everything blurs around it. The eye sees immobile objects situated in space.

Michaux war.jpeg
“Untitled”. Henri Michaux. ca 1961

The ear on the other hand perceives approach and retreat better than the eye. The buzzing of a bee is heard in the distance, it approaches, and fades into the air with the honking cars and click-clacking footsteps. To look is to try to capture what is present at the moment. It requires a certain distance. We can’t read a book with our face buried in it. Sight blurs in closeness, but not sound. The closer a sound is, the more present it is to us. In German, gehören, belonging, derives from hören, hearing. Perhaps, then, the contours, the shape, and the place we imagine belong to things aren’t the only powers that belong to them. Perhaps a body has the power to be not just present or absent for a gazing subject, but also to be intense or subdued, involved or distant, sweet or cacophonous. The intensive powers of a body available to touch, to smell, and to taste are seldom experienced in comparison with those we experience by seeing. How different it is to know something by licking it than by looking at it.

Every body is attracted to some things and repulsed by others, and is charged with a certain amount of intensity. We don’t simply “know” things, we also like or dislike them, we’re attracted or repulsed. These intensive qualities will inevitably put one in conflict with another. What we call the political is nothing other than the interplay and contact between these ethical articulations. Thus, the war. Why “civil”? Because insofar as we dwell in places, and in these places we are always somehow with others, we never truly act alone. The war of each against each is surely a convenient myth to serve as Hobbes’ security blanket, but war is always some against some in real places and with real local conditions.

We do not begin our lives as blank slates, and none of us have ever been one. We are invested from the get-go with moods, tastes, and perceptions that differ from others. There is no point at which we could say we were removed from the world we share with others. Insofar as war makes “civility” equally “incivility” and establishes their relation, insofar as we understand and establish our connection with others through our contact with them, the term civil war can be used to describe a series of points of intensive contact between different beings, wherein the involved parties must make a decision, and the way in which that decision ultimately constitutes and conditions the norms of their coexistence without the possibility of ending.

To sum it up: there is difference. The political is plural or it is nothing at all.