Emancipation & Exhaustion
By Asad Haider
Artwork by Mon M.
March 10th 2021
Consider the militant who wakes up exhausted. Every day and night in the streets, perhaps marching back and forth with painful restraint, perhaps building barricades in spontaneous moments of affinity with those whose rapid “learning processes” have demonstrated the rationality of slowing and obstructing the police. Sore muscles the next day arguing in meetings and studying the classics for guidance. Despair at the emptying of the streets, the guilty capitulation to apathy, and the devastating disintegration of the organization.Consider what intervenes between politics as event: the knocking of doors, the apocalyptically slow process of persuasion, the daily strain to survive one’s own declining fortunes, the sheer emotional intensity of attempting to maintain fidelity and hope in the empty and seemingly endless interval.
We know such exhaustions.
Alongside these exhaustions which punctuate the lives of those who have dedicated themselves to politics at an everyday, grassroots level, the residents of the United States as a whole seem to have entered a state of exhaustion. It is in no small part provoked by the series of drastic political shifts that are marked by the fluctuating fortunes of the parliamentary system and its parties, parallel to the ebb and flow of social movements outside state boundaries. This exhaustion seems to be a broad phenomenon—caused by an affective investment in the outcomes of elections and the trajectory of social movements.
But in fact, we must think of exhaustion in a different, highly specific way if we are to understand its contemporary political centrality. Exhaustion, in fact, has something like the status of a historical condition, a status that is a consequence of the termination of emancipatory politics. In this sense, exhaustion shifts from the moment which marks the termination of a political sequence to what appears to be the very impossibility of politics. Contrary to the popular opinion which dictates that “everything is political,” politics is not always taking place—politics, by which I mean specifically emancipatory politics, is an exceptional phenomenon. It does not happen with frequency. Just as it has to appear, it also fades away.
Of course, to understand any of this, we have to specify what politics means in the first place. In embarking on this task for the present moment, I want to pay tribute to two comrades who left us last year: the Congolese philosopher Ernest Wamba-dia-Wamba, and the Italian Communist Rossana Rossanda. Together they help think through the questions the militant faces in every moment of political action, even in what seem to be unremarkable and everyday practices: what is an emancipatory politics? What allows it to take place—and equally, what prevents it?
Our capacity to theorize our reality will be limited by our ability to formulate a vantage point of emancipation. This vantage point is not one which we could step out of history to assume, but rather is one which appears in particular moments, and ultimately recedes. We also cannot simply take contingent aspects of any particular social movement to represent the intrinsic characteristics of emancipation. Horizontalist forms of organization, for example, though there is certainly no reason to dismiss them out of hand, nevertheless do not automatically guarantee a movement’s emancipatory character. It is possible for such organizational practices to foster broad and egalitarian popular participation, in a way that appears to “prefigure” an emancipated society. But it is just as possible that they will devolve into proceduralism, endless meetings, debilitating indecision, and the reassertion of the same old hierarchies and stratifications that characterize existing society. In this sense, perhaps counterintuitively, instead of embracing specific forms of movement democracy as good in themselves—which, more often than not, brings us back to abstract and ahistorical norms—we have to situate them within political sequences. It is within these sequences, and only within these sequences, that they take on a political meaning.
Such a vantage point of emancipation is different from any social analysis that serves as a guarantee for a particular political program. In my book, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, I declined, much to the chagrin of certain critics, to explain the relation between the categories, now so frequently paired, of “race and class.” It seemed to me that to describe the relationship between two abstractions—which are only articulated in concrete and specific historical circumstances—would be a logical error. Instead, I concerned myself with the articulation of struggles against racial domination and class exploitation in emancipatory social movements. I briefly alluded to the vast literature on the social and historical construction of race, and at the same time, in archival work on the history of the 19th and 20th century workers’ movements for Viewpoint Magazine, I attempted to describe the social and historical construction of class, by reviving the method of “class composition.”
At the time, it seemed to me that the erasure of class in “identity politics” had neutralized the revolutionary character of movements against racial domination. Since then I have been reminded that struggles founded on class can also be neutralized, as the history of the workers’ movement makes clear. It seems to me now that emancipation is foreclosed by any foundation, whether “identitarian” or “materialist,” and that the axes of political struggle cannot be aligned by an empiricist social analysis, but only from the vantage point of emancipation.
I have further been led to understand that my description of the depoliticized moment of the present requires further explanation. I do not mean neutralization as the search for an already neutral domain, or the evasion of conflict, as in the canonical account of Carl Schmitt. His diagnosis of “the age of neutralizations and depoliticizations” is grounded in a general theory of “the political,” while I am concerned with the singular events of “politics.” My theory ends up diametrically opposite to the jurist. What I mean by neutralization is a force which renders opposition ineffective. It is distinct from the potentially moralistic idea of co-optation, which presumes some authentic belonging of the object. Opposition is neutralized not through appropriation, but through the formulation of an effective reactant and the transformation of each element into a new compound. Neutralization is restricted, while depoliticization is expansive. Neutralization comes from the top. It contains and redirects opposition into the harmonious diversity of the system.
Exhaustion, then, is part of a constellation that includes neutralization and depoliticization. In order to distinguish this theory from preceding accounts of neutralization and depoliticization, it will be at the center of our inquiry.
Ernest Wamba-dia-Wamba’s work is not widely known in the “West,” despite the important influence he had at University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa in Senegal. His writings form part of an essential global dialogue on emancipatory politics.
Wamba offers an indispensable statement on emancipation in his discussion of Lenin’s proposition that politics happens “under condition”:
The political attitude is not accommodating; the state of affairs in the world does not have to remain so because it is so. People may live differently than they live. Politics is not expressed through the spontaneous consciousness. It is an active prescriptive relationship with reality and not a reflection or representation in consciousness of invariant structures (economic structure or level of development or the state). Politics is a creative invention. Let us do something about the situation! characterizes a political attitude.
And so Wamba beautifully condenses a number of points on which to elaborate. Wamba emphasizes, drawing on Sylvain Lazarus, that “people think,” and that without this point of departure we inevitably end up in an elitist politics. Consequently there is a sense in which politics is thought—but thought is not, in some dualist framework, separate from reality. People’s thought is part of reality, and this is a materialist and egalitarian proposition. It rejects the idealist and elitist notions that “theory” is disconnected from people’s thought, and that only the party or the state can think. Emancipatory politics, then, based as it is on the “active prescriptive relationship with reality,” is not the expression of a social foundation. And because it starts from the premise of people’s equal capacity for thought, it is a mass politics—not a populist politics in the sense of “the people,” but simply generic “people.”
But even once we have affirmed that people think, we are forced to reckon with the fact that something is not always being done about the situation. In other words: is politics always happening? Wamba notes that the existence of a social movement does not automatically imply the existence of politics; the latter requires a “subjective break,” the development of an antagonism to the whole political order which “is revealed through militant forms of thought… and not through the movement of history.” Thus Wamba argues:
Emancipative politics does not always exist; when it does, it exists under conditions. It is, thus, precarious, and sequential: it unfolds until its conditions of subjective break disappear. When people lose the consciousness of subjective break by ceasing to be involved in political processes, emancipative politics disappears. The completion of a sequence of progressive politics does not lead automatically to another. In the absence of emancipative politics, the state problematic or the imperialist influence prevails in the treatment of matters of politics. To reduce every political capacity to a state capacity is to abscond from politics.
Politics is not the political order of institutions. This much is already determined by the affirmation of people’s thought. But just as significantly, it does not always exist. When it does, it appears in sequences with a beginning and an end, and advances categories specific to its situation.
But there are also modes of politics which are not emancipatory: the single-party, party-state model of state socialism, and the multi-party parliamentary mode. Let us put the term “democracy” in suspension for the moment, because the equation of democracy with multi-partyism and parliamentarianism naturally absorbs it into the state. “The multiparty system is a form of the state and not independent of or antagonistic to it,” Wamba writes. “Legal and constitutional dimensions, separation of powers, recognition of freedoms of association, expression, religion, etc., are structural traits of the state. They do not identify a mode of politics which has to be grasped through its subjective dimension.”
In other words, politics in parliamentarism is reduced to voting. But it is only from the viewpoint of mass organization, Wamba proposes, that it is possible to speak of movements for democracy in Africa. The imposition of Western models of liberal democracy continues a fundamentally colonial relation which does not reflect the capacity of African people to constitute their own politics. “What are the conditions in Africa,” Wamba asks, “for emancipatory politics to exist?” He adds:
Our starting point must be: in Africa too, people think and this is the sole material basis of politics. We must investigate the internal content of what they actually think. It is through an analysis of these forms of consciousness that we will grasp the forms of political consciousness characterizing the antagonism with the existing overall socio-political order.
To fail in this task would be to “abscond from politics, reducing politics to a state capacity.” This, then, is our basic framework for understanding depoliticization.
In line with Wamba’s reasoning, Michael Neocosmos provides important developments in his aptly named Thinking Freedom in Africa. Depoliticization is “the inability to maintain an affirmation of purely subjective politics” when “state politics reassert themselves because of the gradual linking of politics to social categories.” This problem, Neocosmos elaborates, is tangled up with the rare and sequential character of politics. How do we understand a political sequence?
A sequence becomes legible and understandable in its own terms with the consequence that its problems and impasses can be understood from the vantage point of its own categories. In this way any political sequence need not be seen as a success or failure—which implies a judgement from beyond its categories, the “verdict of history”—but rather simply as exhausting itself.
Along these lines, Neocosmos proposes, the end of the national liberation sequence in Africa 1960-75 need not be understood in terms of the “failure of nationalism” but as “the saturation of the politics of national liberation and their gradual exhaustion as pure politics.”
Conventional wisdom on historical revolutionary sequences of the 20th century revolves around a fundamental, flawed dichotomy: either the beautiful soul which remains unsullied by their dark side, or the sensible pragmatist who understands that every attempt to change the world ends in disaster. But one can both reject the nihilistic conclusion that no politics ever took place in a completed political sequence, and understand the consequences of the end of the sequence in terms of the risk of depoliticization.
This is a pervasive problem which we encounter with the exhaustion of the great political sequences of the 20th century, even of the great socialist revolutions. This is how exhaustion becomes a historical condition and results in what we described above as the seeming impossibility of politics.
The sequence of revolution which stretched across Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the 20th century proposed not only the overturning of the existing societies but also the transitional processes of socialist construction which would yield an entirely new kind of world beyond capitalism. But now we are in no such historical phase—and the affective experience of exhaustion is tied to this condition.
Theories of the political mired in this oligarchic sensibility, even if they appear on the left—such as it exists today—ultimately rely on teleological conceptions of history. Unable to comprehend the novel political declarations and actions which gave rise to the historical revolutionary sequences, they also cannot allow for the rare and exceptional emergence of politics in the present. Exhaustion, in this sense, is understood through what Lazarus has called the “method of saturation”: affirming that politics “took place,” while also noting that its existing categories and sites, which constituted a “historical mode of politics” have come to an end. In particular, we have to grapple with the saturation of the long sequence of the 20th century revolutions which revolved around the revolutionary working-class party seizing the state.
These are the conditions of depoliticization. But one need not lay blame on the historical figures who frequently reached a scale of human achievement unimaginable to us, to simply recognize that emancipatory politics is precarious and sequential.
How does the condition of exhaustion operate on the concrete level of movements and the state? Here we can follow our second departed comrade, Rossana Rossanda of il manifesto, the dissident group pushed out of the Italian Communist Party in 1969.
In 1983, reflecting on the long, turbulent sequence of political upheaval in Italy of at least the preceding two decades Rossanda identified two fundamental political problems: the dissipation of social movements outside the state, and the consequences of left-wing parties attempting to enter the state. Of course, the situation in Italy, characterized by perpetual strikes and a mass Communist Party approaching the seat of power, is not the same as the ones we know in the United States. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of the rise and fall of the Bernie Sanders campaign and the mass protests against police violence demonstrates the ongoing salience of Rossanda’s reflections. The Sanders campaign, of course, attempted to pursue a social-democratic program within the parameters of the bourgeois state—subsequently followed by the eruption of social movements outside the state. This dynamic, even if in a drastically different form and context, sheds light on the problem of the relationship between party and movement—or to put it another way, between the political (parliamentary) forms of the existing state and the social (extraparliamentary) basis of autonomous mobilization.
For Rossanda, in the aftermath of the crest of the European workers’ movement the very form of the party, manifested in the Communist Parties, was in crisis. Already in 1968, from Paris to Beijing “the party-form was put into question” in no small part by the independent initiatives of workers. This occurred without the guidance of parties and unions, and alongside an unprecedented level of protest by youth and students which had an uneven but frequently fecund relationship with factory struggles. This crisis of the party-form was a critique of its fundamental political model; it was, Rossanda wrote, “the refusal of any delegation of power, whether it be a party or state, henceforth treated as ‘other’ in relation to the new subjectivity of these social agents.”
During this particular crisis, the working class was engaged in the “refusal of work” rather than following the lead of unions in pursuing a minimal program of delegating the negotiation of new contracts to the labor bureaucracy. The student movements, meanwhile, helped realize the potential of the workers’ movement to pursue an independent path by advocating for autonomy and cultural transformation.
But while the “new social movements” outside the party provided a vitality to the independent movements of the workers, they also relied on the mass organization of the working class that was inextricable from the political party, even if the latter operated as a force of containment. This contradictory relationship, also witnessed in the May 1968 revolt in France, was exacerbated when the parties confronted the implications, throughout the 1970s, of actually entering into the capitalist state. What could they achieve within the very bourgeois form not only of the political party itself, but parliamentary politics as a whole? Rossanda pointed to the simple fact that in Western societies representative democracy is a structure within which parties must attempt to get votes. The process of getting these votes within the limits of the existing political system determines the party’s framework and ideology, and this takes priority over the demands of its working-class political base. For this reason, whatever tactical potential there might have been in participating in elections, it was nevertheless the case that a very different kind of working-class political power would have to emerge in order to overturn class society.
Within this structure, contemporary socialists have aspired to reproduce the history of the mass working-class political parties: garnering votes, aspiring to enter the state. In short, despite the fact that the very notion of a Communist Party entering the state seems unimaginable, when and if they succeed, contemporary socialists will eventually confront the problem of the form of political power that will be required for structural transformation.
It wasn’t just the party that was in crisis. Extraparliamentary social movements had a prospect of overcoming bureaucratic ossification and reorienting the parties in a revolutionary direction. But movements were also in crisis. Movements leave an “active sedimentation” in society and its institutions “at the molecular level,” as Rossanda put it. They are that part of society which “transforms itself, calls for change, assembles and gathers people together.” Yet the movement, Rossanda reminds us, “does not last”; its “dramatic and destructive ebbs are as important as the sedimentations it creates.”
There were, furthermore, important historical shifts at work as Rossanda was writing. Until the mid-twentieth century, Rossanda argued, movements “arose from sudden bursts from the margins of society” but were then “predisposed to become a party or merge with an existing party.” In this sense they provoked a transformation in the state which also generally represented their absorption into the existing institutions. Yet the new movements of the 1970s did not operate according to this logic. They “tended to express subjects and needs that the dominant social bloc, namely the parties and the state, could no longer absorb in a timely manner without abnegating itself.”
The movements did not institutionalize themselves, either by building new institutions or by entering existing ones, either because they were not capable of achieving this or simply did not aspire to, and without articulating a project or alternative, they “withered,” and the existing power structures solidified in response.
In Italy the parties were incorporated into the increasingly repressive state—the Italian Communist Party itself playing a leading role in repression of autonomous movements—and capital succeeded, by the late ‘70s, in breaking the power of labor. Even if the parties and unions had operated as a force of containment and absorption into bourgeois parliamentarianism, their mass membership also functioned as a political anchor, so their crisis was also the crisis of the movements. As they went on the retreat, movements fell prey to a general social anomie and atomization. Here I must beg your patience in referring to a dense and lengthy passage which provides the key formulation:
A diffuse politicization remains, skeptical in regards to the left if not openly hostile, as does an intense depoliticization, a kind of active negation. The “movements” are no longer “movements” (which would suggest that they are only movements insofar as they retain the implicit hope for a way out or transfer to other “forms of politics,” or a certain trust in the permeability of the institutional network which has disappeared today). They are becoming fevers, “latencies,” partial cultures or subcultures, acting creatively but molecularly, contradictorily.
Rossanda is pointing us here to the molecular level of depoliticization: not the macroscopic, historical scale that is the condition resulting from the end of a historical mode of politics, but the immediate, on-the-ground level of practical activity of the movement’s participants. What she calls the “diffuse politicization” of the movements is oppositional to the existing society. But in their fragmentation, the movements no longer move from the margins into the institutions. As Rossanda had argued of movements in the first half of the 20th century, this shift into the institutions had a dual character: the existing institutions neutralized these oppositional bursts from the margins, while at the same time also necessarily being transformed by them. While the autonomy of the emerging movements may have circumvented this neutralization, they also did not find a new way to compel the institutions to resolve the problems raised by their revolt, refusal, and demands. Now the movements came to exist as latencies alongside the sturdiness of the institutional order, and this order appeared to take on a despotic permanence.
Rossanda’s insight into the complex relations between class and party, party and movement, remain crucial for socialists today who ask themselves: how should we organize?
In this essay, I have meant exhaustion in three senses. The first, at the level of the immediate practical activity of the militant, is the waning of the political capacity for commitment or the devolution into factionalism. The second, at the level of the political sequences within which militants act, is when an existing historical mode of politics comes to an end and a new one is not yet apparent. The third, at the level of history, is the condition which results from the seeming impossibility of political sequences of a scale and depth comparable to the 20th century revolutions.
Does exhaustion constitute a period of history, an “age”? Periodization is tricky. All periodizations are schematic. It is extremely complicated to determine how the logical relationship between categories is aligned with a certain period of time, especially for events so tumultuous that they constantly defy interpretation. Though this may seem counterintuitive, periodization at its best does not exactly identify periods, within which every phenomenon expresses the totality in a particular stage of development. Rather, it provides specific and distinct descriptions of uneven and structurally interrelated processes, which have moments of rupture and discontinuity. There are thus interwoven threads throughout these periods, untimely divisions and amalgamations.
Those of us living through a period between sequences which announce shared reference points for a global political subjectivity can choose between being faithful to the emancipatory project and the various forms of capitulation to exhaustion. In trying to revive politics, exhaustion overwhelms us: the closure of revolutionary history, the unavailability of the forms, resources, and means which might be utilized in its continuation, an unhealthy relationship to past failures. With this we are all exhausted. What we are left with are simply various forms of pseudo-politics.
There are three such pseudo-political sensibilities: adjustment, which claims to advocate for adjusting the existing reality, but actually enjoins us to adjust ourselves to it, on the basis of convenient normative principles (democracy, even socialism); personalization, the reduction of politics to individual behavior and identity, determined by a range of categories to which a person might be said to belong; and pragmatism, which dictates that since it will not get better, you must unencumber yourself of principles.
In the interval the choice is not easy. Perhaps more dangerous than resignation in the face of exhaustion is to perform the rituals of depoliticization. Consider how these sensibilities are practiced.
First, adjustment appears in the condescending rejection of any organizational process which does not have the state as its object. It generally means that an aspiring bureaucracy closes ranks and insists that all other political practices should be dropped every few years when, as Marx put it long ago, the people are permitted to decide which member of the ruling class will misrepresent them in parliament. Experiments, necessary for any process of organizational invention, are ridiculed and dismissed in comparison to an ideal model which exists nowhere in reality, but which we are assured is the only practical solution. The stubborn repetition of norms, both political and social, guarantees the despotism of the model. Walter Benjamin recounted what he called a Hasidic saying (but which he actually heard from his friend Gershom Scholem), that when the messiah comes, the world will be just as it is now, “only a little bit different.” From the perspective of adjustment, it will not be even a little bit different.
Second, personalization operates the reduction of politics to interpersonal relations, resulting in factionalism and conformism. Factionalism and conformism are not unusual in the history of politics, even emancipatory politics, but today they happen without the processes of total social upheaval that framed them historically. As a result, individuals and groups act like states without achieving any substantive change, enforcing unwritten laws with informal social punishments. In the place of the aspiration for structural transformation there is the centering of politics on the person, on the person of the adversary, whose offensive proclamations and style of speaking may provide the opportunity for a self-satisfied disgust, insofar as our experiences and self-designations are seen as spontaneously political rather than themselves the construction of political procedures.
Third, pragmatism is the most widespread sensibility among intellectuals, from the media to the academy, who adopt political language but drain it of any idea, and laugh at those who have the courage to believe that a truly political idea is worth defending. As Alain Badiou puts it, the imperative of capitalism, “get rich!,” today translates into: “Live without an Idea!” Even in the pages of our most traditional newspapers, no less than in what Byung-Chul Han calls the “shitstorms” of social media, we can read condemnations of oppression and privilege, we can see debates over the abolition of our society’s most violent institutions, we can rejoice at the toppling of the latest petty tyrant with the misfortune of being randomly exposed. Yet if we were to don the fabled sunglasses of They Live!, we would read, in bold and colossal type: “Live without an Idea!”
These sensibilities correspond in certain respects to different political tendencies, but they also fuse and intermingle in various ways. In social movements, forms of organization, whether they are bureaucratic or horizontalist, frequently revolve around the persons who lead or represent the movement. Competitions between factions, the decisions about which persons will occupy the positions of leadership, displace debates over strategy and program; activists are required to perform lengthy confessions of their privilege instead of recruiting new members (who are almost universally repelled, entirely justly, by such religious procedures); and purges and expulsions are performed to cleanse and redeem the community, instead of fostering environments which encourage free and open discussion.
All depoliticization leads back to the state, and its rituals, no matter how molecular, only enforce its hegemony. In periods of the intensification of opinion, of the back and forth which is not genuinely political, the greatest temptation is withdrawal—to maintain the conviction that a genuinely emancipatory politics is necessary, to recognize that it has taken place in the past, but then to conclude that it will not take place again.
It is difficult to dictate to others whether it is better to enter the fray of opinion or withdraw into the isolation of one’s bunker. And indeed, I have no political prescription to make. I am unable to conclude with a clarion call, to rally new energies to a resurgence of politics. But this is not because I view emancipation as illusory, inherently flawed, or doomed to failure. In reality, it has been exhausted, in a way that perhaps we are still unable to fully comprehend.
In the absence of events which inaugurate a thorough break with the existing order, I can only try to remain faithful, to the extent that my energies allow, to the emancipatory statements that Wamba articulated: that people think, that they may live differently than they do, and that politics is the creative invention which says: let us do something about the situation! And the questions which immediately follow these statements are: what are the conditions for emancipatory politics to exist? What are the militant forms of thought which make it possible for masses of people to make a subjective break from the existing state of things? What are the sites of politics which allow us to take a distance from the state, and how do we prevent politics from being reduced to the state when a political sequence comes to an end?
The energies for fidelity, however, do not remain stable in our turbulent reality. A kind of ordinary steadiness, perhaps, can be drawn from Rossanda’s analysis of the organizational processes underlying these conditions. If depoliticization overwhelms us, it is not a matter of historical necessity, but of everyday relations, of the way we organize our relations to each other in the process of organizing politically. From the working class to the new social movements, from unions to assemblies, there is the patient work of building collectivities that last and the sober analysis of the exigencies of organization. And once again, many questions: what will fill the empty space left in history by the party? How can movements avoid neutralization while still compelling the transformation of existing institutions? What can prevent movements from being consigned to the margins, where they watch power solidify and harden?
I remain convinced by these insights, but it would be a mistake to pretend that we have answers to the questions that follow. False certainties do not result in correct actions, and we gain little from arranging our ideas in such a way as to give ourselves the gift of optimism. Exhaustion, perhaps, is not eternal; we have no evidence to conclude that it is. But as capitalism, in its automatic and impersonal nihilism, accelerates its exhaustion of the planet, and the rituals of depoliticization foreclose the declaration of any political idea, there appears almost to be a nobility in withdrawal.
And yet, this appearance is illusory, because one of the few truly meaningful questions in an otherwise meaningless and mediocre existence is this: what can we do about the situation?
Answering that question means reckoning seriously, and disturbingly, with exhaustion. Time will tell—but not too much time—if we are up to the task.