The psychotic hydra and the desire for transversality

The psychotic hydra and the desire for transversality

~ by Massimo De Angelis ~

This article has been published in Italian by Comune-info

psychotic hydra

Tendencies of the psychotic hydra.

The situation is confusing. The outlook bleak. And great is the desire for fresh air. This is how I often feel when, perturbed by the overlapping of horrific news, I observe the trends at work that send back to me the image of a world without hope. The trend toward environmental destruction and global warming. The trend toward war and the reoccurrence of the cruelest horrors, the continuing migranticide in the Mediterranean, the slaughter of the Palestinians, the existential threat that peeps back with its 13,000 nuclear warheads. And then the tendency for an increasingly unequal world, the tendency of new fascisms to take over people’s imaginary and sense of things, the tendency for the explosion of mutually hostile and rival identities instead of the articulation of differences that in their virtual interaction can give rise to a qualitative gap to our life in common. In short, the current situation sends back to me an image of a world that does not look very promising. 

These days, war seems to be the issue that attracts most of our concern, even though it is intimately linked to other social and environmental urgencies. But today’s wars, even if they have historical roots, are born and reproduced within a world government. We no longer live in the bipolar world of my childhood and youth, where two opposing images of progress with more in common than meets the eye governed the world within the grip of the threat of mutual destruction.  It is no longer even the unipolar world, where peace is brought by the imperial might of the victor left standing, and which promises dividends for all that have been realised only for the usual few.  No, we now live inside a world of conflictual multipolarity, where despite the asymmetries between powers, they cannot (certainly not yet) afford to lock themselves inside separate economic spheres. All functions of our social metabolism with non-human nature — the circuits of extraction, circulation, transformation, consumption and excretion of waste with its toxicities — are dominated by material and symbolic networks that are global. It is a domination that, despite its distinctive contemporary forms, we still call capitalism. But those who should govern these networks, those who decide their viability, perspectives and interests to be rewarded, are in conflict with each other. The governance of the world is in the hands of a psychotic hydra, a monster whose body reproduces itself with the expanded reproduction of capital, and whose innumerable heads clash against each other leading “us,” who inhabit this world and want to live in it peacefully, increasingly adrift, and to experience a tragic feeling of powerlessness. 

Social reproduction and war

In the conflicting multipolarity within which we are forced to operate, the real or foreboding war it brings is now our first enemy, not only because of the pain and despair created by its horrors and the injustices perpetrated, but also because through it social reproduction at large is affected and reconfigured.  War (and the growing foreboding of war) operates on social reproduction in three ways. First, it is obviously a direct instrument of destroying life and worsening its general conditions of reproduction. This is not only for those on the front lines in war, or for civilian populations directly affected by the bombing, the processing of grief, and the accelerated increase in care work. Also for the destruction of the environment and of various forms of life, for the ecological toxicity that war adds to that already accumulated and reproduced over the centuries by the circuits of capital. War gives further impetus to the chaotic forces of the world, reinforces dystopian horizons, and intensifies the care work needed by a society (and we know that care work is predominantly unpaid or underpaid, and disproportionately provided by women).  Second, according to what I can observe in Europe, because war is a tool for reconfiguring social reproduction, for worsening general living conditions through economic and financial circuits (e.g., through inflationary cycles that enrich multinational corporations and impoverish the most) and by means of policies that cut out the already insufficient resources to finance social reproduction (e.g., welfare, health, education) to devote them to the production of more weapons. “As if we feed on weapons!” one would have said in my grandparents’ time.  It follows, thirdly, that war adds its force to the already existing divisive forces in the world, explodes identity divisions, reinforcing the more exclusionary, conservative and neo-fascist ones based on sharp distinctions of gender role divisions, crass nationalisms, the identification of an “us” based on rivalry with the other “us,” so that the ever-diminishing resources of social reproduction can be circumscribed in a few areas and for a few individuals, leaving everyone with the income-conditional freedom to turn to private services. War, the real one but also the foreshadowed war, is a force for social deconstruction, deep division, and the creation of conditions that enable the reproduction of capital to avail itself of further lowering the costs of social reproduction in order to pursue its “civilizing” mission in the name of accumulation. War is functional to the reproduction of capital. Lowering the costs of reproduction means increasing inequality (soon the level of inequality in Europe will be like those in Latin America, predicted an article in Foreign Affairs last summer), and increasing environmental destruction.  And this is precisely the mission that the right-wingers in Europe seem intent on pursuing and governing with great tenacity: to further lower the costs of social reproduction in order to boost that of capital.  

The “We”

Trends are the result of our projections into the future of what we extrapolate from the past and present. However, trends do not take into account the new that may emerge, and which may stand as a counter-trend. It is then necessary to start again with the “we” question, this personal pronoun that is unspeakable without reference to the specificity of a context, of a choice of field, of an identity that affirms it as a distinction from a “they.”  Who will this “we” ever be? “We” the workers? The women? The migrants? The peasants? The precarious workers? The students? The teachers? The lgbtqia+ communities? The cisgender people? The white people? The blacks?  The indigenous people? The environmentalists? The silent majorities? The self-employed? The platform workers? The Christians? The Muslims? The Buddhists? The Jews? The pagans? The atheists?  It seems to me that in the aspirational world of transversal movements, the choice of camp is none of these in particular, and potentially all of them at the same time, a choice that makes sense only from the recognition of a common condition that is also transversal to all, albeit to different degrees and in different ways.  To speak of a common condition is not a way of evoking the human essence, because the human is declined precisely in its diversity of conditions, desires and intentionality. The common condition is that we all (or at least the overwhelming majority) on this world operate to reproduce our living human capacities in conditions of our not choosing, and that we all love freedom, and that we all are sensitive and desiring beings, and that we all live and operate articulated to one another through numerous relational games that create, reproduce or deconstruct relations of power, and productive circuits that distribute costs and benefits, and that we all live and operate always and also necessarily in relation to the non-human nature from which we draw — at the end of the day — the ultimate conditions of our existence. This common condition and the configuration of living labor corresponding to it in my opinion is the meaning that needs to be given to the idea of  “social cooperation”. 

Cooperation, a strange word, which in common parlance we generally understand with laudable ethical overtones: come on, let’s cooperate instead of undermining each other existence through economic competition or killing each other in war. No, in its general sense social cooperation should be understood with Marx as that force which emerges from the articulation of multiple forces, whose social potential is greater than the sum of individual forces. The tragedy is that a large part of this social cooperation, is based on competitive rivalry, on the segmentation of class, gender, ethnicity, nation, on the creation and recreation of subaltern subjects. This social cooperation that weaves our lives, not only produces (things, gazes, ideas, projects, events, knowledge, fantasies, images, institutions, affects), it also reproduces, that is, it creates the conditions for production, for social cooperation. What conditions does it reproduce? Two essentially, but the first, in the existing order of things, is always more important than the second. First, it reproduces the body of the psychotic hydra, it reproduces capital through accumulation, profit and rent and the propensity for growth above all else. Second, it reproduces our lives, our living human capacities, what we call social reproduction in a broad sense. The reproduction of capital dictates its measures on the body of social cooperation, its selections, its rhythms, its distinctions, always aimed at bringing water to its mill. Will “we” be able to create a force that sets its measures of things, its what, how much and how to produce, its why to produce, its how to distribute and redistribute, its how much to work, and so on? 

From this point of view, “we” are all those who intend to reimagine, refound, redesign, and reconfigure the network of relations and practices that underlie social cooperation in order to promote conditions of existence that are worthy for all, conditions that amplify the freedom to create and relate, that find organised ways to articulate different desires. In this sense, social reproduction is the transversal ground within which one can work for the political recomposition of a “we.” Transversal, because its problematic is transversal not only to different subjects, but also to sectors and spheres of social production.  The issues of income, welfare, working conditions, harmfulness, caring, housing, violence against women, mobility, ecological devastation and climate change, who decides what, who is subordinate to whom, the production of knowledge and its transmission, which couples can adopt children and which cannot, which young people raised in a country can be considered citizens, and so on, are all issues of social reproduction that we find in the most diverse venues of social cooperation. The war (and the foreboding of war) pushes for a general worsening of the conditions of social reproduction. But because of its transversality, social reproduction is a potentially enormous terrain for the social recomposition of the imaginary, struggles and practices that intend to build a better world.  Every node of conflict between the reproduction of capital and social reproduction, has the potential to become a point of articulation with other nodes in this transversal terrain, if we work for a convergence between them. Each node of conflict then can become an opportunity to launch a project of refounding social cooperation that subverts the subalternity of social reproduction to that of capital. Being against war means organising against and beyond this subalternity.