The Molecular Subject(s) of Revolution

Just a short post here today. I wanted to highlight a few really interesting sections of Richard Gilman-Opalsky’s excellent book ‘Specters of Revolt‘ and to expand on them with some further thoughts, particularly about the revolutionary subject(s), molecularity, and joyful rebellion. It’s been a bit of a revelation reading it, I have to say, though its exact ideological tenor I found a little ambiguous for whatever that’s worth. On the one hand, there are frequent (cheap) pot-shots at anarchists; on the other, he criticises Hardt and Negri’s return to the ‘Marxian revolutionary subject.’ I wonder what Marxism is without that notion, some minimal subject antagonistic to the interest of capital. I think maybe this is why Hardt and Negri’s attempt to theorise the Multitude in the way they do, and why I find it so interests insofar as it pushes, perhaps to the extreme, how Marxism can conceptualise contemporary movements and revolts. Certainly his interest remains in autonomy. But perhaps I’m playing the wrong game by worrying about this at all. What really matters is what the book says, and what it does! And it says and does a lot! Here’s some of the passages that stood out to me from his chapter on ‘Beyond Struggle.’

Guattari and Negri’s molecular point of view rejects any attempt to take distinct molecular revolutions as part of some unified revolutionary program. That is, their position reflects an honest acceptance of the smallness of certain revolts and a total rejection of the effort to make every movement appear as a self-conscious part of some ideological whole. For example, it would be an ideological sleight of hand to say that the revolution in Egypt in 2011 is orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, or by a Google marketing manager, or by anarchists, or by communists disaffected with capitalism. Guattari and Negri point out that desire, on a social terrain, does not express a cohesive ideological consensus. It can only be made to look ‘communist’ on the level of appearance, and this serves as a critical reminder to Hardt and Negri, who have retrieved the Marxian revolutionary subject position and refigured it in the multitude. I am afraid that the molecular point of view – more honest, less ideological – gets lost in the aggregate points of view of the multitude.

Specters of Revolt, p. 83

It’s interesting to me that in seeking to develop a molecular politics, Gilman-Opalsky returns not to Hardt-Negri but instead to that strange but fascinating assemblage Guattari-Negri (though he is at pains to not by any means lay the blame for this on Hardt!) This is of course drawn from their collaborative work, more a series of mutually-conducted interviews, in New Lines of Alliance, New Spaces of Liberty originally published in 1985. It isn’t actually entirely clear to me how far apart these two assemblages are, and that there are not clear and important connections branching out between them. But I’m sure Gilman-Opalsky would grant that if it were put to him, but there’s something he sees in Guattari-Negri which he finds missing in Hardt-Negri, which is an interesting notion by itself – I may end up reading a bit more by both to try and see where they come apart. But in particular, the notion that the desires which traverse the social space of a revolt lack an inherently political character at the level of desire seems common between both approaches; what perhaps changes in the 15 intervening years preceding the publication of Empire, is to ask ‘What can be done to articulate these desires in the shape of Communism? How can these desires be, perhaps, mediated via democratic and egalitarian means in order to amplify their force?’

But more importantly, the point here is a very legitimate and important one for contemporary radical elements. For those who still hold out hope for revolution and revolt, it is surely necessary to enter into a relationship of receptivity towards the actually-existing movements of our age. One of the most distasteful tendencies of many Marxist-Leninist groups in Britain is their opportunism, simply waiting around for some group or another to ‘kick off’, then to infiltrate and try to sway, pressure, recruit, organise on their behalf. And as Hardt and Negri point out in Assembly (2017), it is not a coincidence that so many of these movements are ‘leaderless’. It is not a mistake, a strategic misrecognition, a failure of organisational effectivity: it is a deliberate and strategic choice on their part to make democratic and egalitarian ethics and praxis immanent to their very movements, to their practical signification, their goals, and their procedural tools. I take a message of something like this: Attend to these movements, do not speak for them, do not lecture them, co-opt them, or exploit them: take part, demonstrate your solidarity, and listen.

In 1985, Guattari and Negri theorized the revolutionary subject from its singular characteristics instead of from generalizations, arguing that “[e]ach molecular movement, each autonomy, each minoritarian movement will coalesce with an aspect of the real in order to exalt its particular liberatory dimensions.” Thus, rather than prescribing or predicting how a cohesive revolutionary class may act as a critical mass, various subsets of the exploited, oppressed, neglected, and despised will show us directly how they act in their actual and diverse modes of revolt. This helps us to understand the conditions of each movement, and their respect proclivities for action. This perspective is critical to the theory of revolt developed in this book, because it does not seek to subordinate every uprising to an ideological format of class conflict, and rather, actively guards against such reductions.

Specters of Revolt, p. 89

These questions are of central importance today. Who is, today, the revolutionary subject? Is there one? Has there ever been? Are there still revolutionary subjects, pluralising elements of the body politic whose existence agitates against the constraints of liberal-democratic capitalism? Is it still a question of these subjects coming to a conscious awareness of their historical role, or is it now a matter of recalibrating our understandings? Mapping out the new flows of desire across these social terrains, watching where they reach certain intensities, resonating beyond and across multiple lines, cutting through and dissolving them. In other words: how can we understand the desires which come before any ideological expression, which traverse any movement, and the potentiality they may possess to stretch out across so many boundaries and lines to form something much larger?

Gilman-Opalsky takes us at least part way there, and certainly further than anyone else I’ve read so far. By returning to Guattari-Negri’s much-overlooked work together, he seems to try to recapture these elements of both singularity and molecularity in one and the same movement. Moreover, he also returns us to the question of theory and praxis. And I am in full agreement with him on this one: we theorists have very little to teach but perhaps a great deal to learn from actually-existing radical movements and uprisings. We must not assume an ideological conformity amongst revolutionary elements, nor can this be understood simply in terms of ‘false consciousness’ on their part. The flows of desire have never conformed to rigid ideological identifications, always escaping, breaking out from pre-determined and fixed frameworks of understanding. We must be attentive to the singularity of any revolutionary moment, not in order to isolate it, but in order to understand it and to see how these intensities may spiral outwards in a chain-reaction of sparks meeting powder-kegs. And when this happens, we should perhaps recall Deleuze’s formulation (in conversation with Foucault, who is in agreement) that “Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another. No theory can develop without eventually encountering a wall, and practice is necessary for piercing this wall.”1

Autonomous action within the limits of capital – self-directed, micropolitical, and joyful – is the scream’s complement. We cannot simply choose between the screams of struggle, on the one hand, and pleasure, on the other, nor should we assert a hard separation between the two. The majority of the world’s people, living on the losing end of capital, are stuck with struggle as a kind of modus operandi. They do not need to commit to the struggle, since the struggle is inevitably always with them. However, for a sustainable and ongoing contestation of capital and its culture, we must oppose the total negation of our desires and talents in the here and now. Struggle may be necessary, but it is never enough. As long as the fight for a better future places our desires and talents in abeyance, the fight will tire too quickly, and power has the patience to wait it out. Some of the most inspiring saturnalias of social upheaval rise up and subside over the course of a long weekend. Struggle must be decentered. If struggle remains the centrality modality of revolution, then only the most ‘selfless’ and/or miserable among us will participate in revolution, and one wonders about the possibility, sustainability, and psychic health of such ‘selfless’ and miserable individuals, of such a sad and horrible politics.

Specters of Revolt, p. 96 (Emphasis mine)

This struck me as a really interesting, and quite moving, call for a more joyful and less self-valorising radical politics. Not only because it calls for a politics more open to the diversity of talents, skills, desires and loves of this mobile assemblage of discontents, but because it calls for us to reconsider whether – in our commitment to ‘the struggle’, to ‘struggling for/against …’ – we are in fact endlessly immiserating ourselves, and, purely tactically, putting others off from desiring in a similar way. What is perhaps calls for is a politics of affirmation, but in this case, then precisely what is required is a reconceptualisation of the relationship between affirmation and negation. What is necessary is to be capable of a double-movement of negation-affirmation; a first volley of destructive-negativity, an abolition of all that is, in order to be capable of affirming what could be; or perhaps, the affirmation of what could be over and against what is.

If we want a better society, we have to desire not just that better society but also to do the things that are necessary in order to achieve it. Desire has to enter into, to invest, our actual practices and join up that productive connection of desire-interest. The relation between means and ends, for Gilman-Opalsky, has to be understood in this way. In this respect, he stands much closer to the ‘naive anarchists’ he so frequently criticises in this book. For this is a central tenet of anarchist theory: that the means employed necessarily alter into a relation of transformation with the ends, distorting both until neither are any longer recognisable. It remains to us to consider whether history has vindicated such a formulation.

I am sure I will write more about this really excellent book in the very near future. I have not even touched upon perhaps the central claim of his book – that the revolt is itself a kind of intellect, an approach or form of philosophy. But I wanted to leave you with those three excerpts from the third chapter on ‘Beyond Struggle.’ I think there’s a lot of food for thought even within these relatively short passages.

  1. Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, “Intellectuals and Power: A conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze’ (1972), URL:

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