The Art, the Political Conjuncture, and the Left

  1. 1. Do I consider my work political?

I was asked to reflect upon my own artistic practice, practice that I develop with my theater collective BADco., and describe if its political or not. [1] To start, I can immediately say that our work is not directly political. Colleagues in my collective would probably beg to disagree, yet I’ll explain in what follows why I hesitate to qualify our work, or indeed many other works that consider themselves political, as political. What is at stake in my hesitation is the conceptual demarcation between the art and the politics. If we fail to properly demarcate the political from the artistic, we risk losing understanding under what conditions and under what actions art becomes political.

In parallel to BADco.’s artistic work, it is a fact that we’re politically situated in a context of struggles in which we actively and in various guises take part in – a circumstance that we often also reflect in our artwork. Many of our works have picked up on the issues and the limits of political imaginary that are formative of our political context. Our work Ribcage was a bitter reaction on the Iraq war, 1 poor and one 0 speculated on the recent history of deindustrialization in our postsocialist world, A Pound of Hysteria, Acceleration … operated with the anxieties of middle classes over proletarianization in the aftermath of 2008, Responsiblity for Things Seen drew on urban contestations in Zagreb and Dubrovnik, Stranger anticipated the Europe’s political turmoil over the recent refugee crisis. [2] These are all issues we were or are active around in one capacity or another, yet there’s always an indirection at work between the political action and our aesthetic inquiry. Our work is socially reflexive, yet still not political in and of their own. Their political content and situatedness still does not make them political. Therefore, to reach any final judgment, there’s a number of intermediate steps that need to be considered to come to some understanding how politics and art relate and fail to relate.

Anyone not having to read the long exposition that follows, can immediately jump to section 5. For the rest, let’s start from the immediate context of our work and its operative contradictions. The immediate production context of our work is Zagreb’s »independent culture,« comprising actors in art and culture that have emerged largely from the anti-war and anti-nationalist opposition of the 1990s. Starting from the embattled context of the 1990s, these organizations have followed the fast-paced integration of the national war economy into the international circuits of capital in 2000s by shifting their political focus from the issue of minority rights (of ethnic minorities, LGBTQ community, counterculture) to the majority rights (employment, welfare, public provision of services, labor protections).

In this transition form the 1990s into 2000s a process of progressive radicalization from the communitarian to the common unfolded. In an important aspect, the radicalization centered around the contested colonization of space and built environment as a social resource by private interests amidst the real-estate book of the first part of the 2000s, which was itself made possible by the privatization of socialist productive economy and its eventual hollowing-out in the 1990s. Initially focusing on calling out the local governments over the denial of access to resources, the »independent culture« first pushed for preserving spaces that were being rampantly redeveloped and thus permanently taken away from their potential social use.

However, the failure of this soft politics of advocacy forced it soon to its focus on broader issues of the »second privatization« of social resources, driven by land and real estate speculation. This shift led to a formation of a broad social movement Right to the City Zagreb. [3] Between 2006 and 2011, the Right to the City has organized a cycle of large popular mobilization against the disenfranchisement of the people of Zagreb in the development of their city. After that initial period of intense confrontation, the Right to the City Zagreb turned its attention to various other aspects of privatization: the land-grab in coastal and agricultural zones, doubling frequently as golf-course development projects, mounting a first popular referendum in Croatia with the initiative Srđ je naš! in Dubrovnik; [4] to the illegal hollowing out of functional companies for the reasons of monetizing assets, helping for instance the textile workers of the Kamensko factory; [5] and against the austerity-driven 99-year long concession to a private investor of the national network of highways.

However, for all their putative success, these mobilizations have frequently raised doubts as to whether they are programmatically anti-systemic and if they are thus not caught in a cycle they cannot overcome, regardless how far they manage to grow in scale and significance. Doubts if there isn’t a disparity between their practical goals and processes working at the structural level that they fail to assail. They connect heterogeneous social forces – from environmentalists, over civil society actors, political liberals, anarchists, and communists, all the way down to trade unions. They work with a tactical horizon in mind, articulating the structural processes and conditions through direct and particular acts of negation. And yet despite of all those doubts they have had greater effects in defending the elements of the social system against the capitalist attack than many other processes of radicalization, with the exception of student occupations and rare trade-union mobilizations.

So, how to consider this glass ceiling that the contestations face; seeing the problem in the system, yet not being able to engage it at a systemic level – and what are the structural conditions of its confrontation, setting the limits on its space of action? But before we enter the analysis, let’s state something obvious and yet painful, something that touches upon the question of perfomativity of politics.

  1. 2. Performativity of politics and why we live in a troubled attachment to the progressive politics of yesteryear.

We invoke politics and perform political action »as if« the normative proceduralism of democratic process is in effect. We, not being in power, are not isolated in this. The opposite side – commanding the heights of political power – invokes and performs that »as if« as well. It is in this symmetric commitment to the politics that the performativity of politics is staged: the game of political pushing and pulling is performed at a deeper level between the reaffirmation and the transgression of the political norms.

Accordingly, we see the political cunning, the measure of political performance, in the capacity to effect both – to invoke the rules, yet to achieve more than the rules the political game allow. Yet, while this operation might be symmetric between those who are in power and us who are not in power, the capacity to effect change through that operation is all but symmetric. It is not only skewed by the differential of effective power between the political class and the rest of the society, but also by the differential of understanding of the effective Spielraum of the political action between one and the other. Those who partake in the political system are beholden to the art of the possible, which is nowadays committed to declaring that the historical achievements of labor struggles, enshrined in welfare provisions, are no longer tenable, while the rest despair over their desire to hold on to the good life that is increasingly declared impossible. In the present, there’s a striking contrast between the neurotic élan reassuringly exuded by the politicos and the antipolitical disenchantment predominant among the masses.

The reason for the contrast is that the ground of politics has significantly shifted and contracted. The economic trumps the political more than ever before in our recent history. While both sides are invested in the political horizon that no longer holds up to the forms of transformation with which we used to measure political performance – be that reform, nonreformist reform or revolutionary politics, that attachment to the political horizon of yesteryear seems to be particularly noxious for those who hold on tooth and claw to the old notion of progressive politics. It results in what Lauren Berlant has called »Cruel Optimism.«

»[C]ruel Optimism« [is] a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic. What’s cruel about these attachments, and not merely inconvenient or tragic, is that

the subjects who have x in their lives might not well endure the loss of their object/scene of desire, even though its presence threatens their well-being, because whatever the content of the attachment is, the continuity of its form provides something of the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world. This phrase points to a condition different from that of melancholia, which is enacted in the subject’s desire to temporize an experience of the loss of an object/scene with which she has invested her ego continuity. Cruel Optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object … some scenes of optimism are clearly crueler than others: where cruel optimism operates, the very vitalizing or animating potency of an object/scene of desire contributes to the attrition of the very thriving that is supposed to be made possible in the work of attachment in the first place.« [6]

  1. 3. This is the defining condition for the Cruel Optimism of the left. The political ground has shifted so dramatically that there is little space left for programmatic progressive politics.

The immediate evidence that the political space has contracted – not only in terms of political imaginary but in terms of the effect political space of action – is the fact that winning the elections and seizing power matters little for reformist change, let alone for antisystemic politics. Historic reasons are obvious: the transformation of global capitalist relations since the 1970s and in particular their deepening after the demise of the socialist project since 1989, resulting in a highly integrated capitalist world-system, have severed the immediate link within the borders of national economies between the reproduction of the capital and the reproduction of the working class. The capital no longer needs to secure the consent of the working class by conceding a fair wage and welfare provision. Quite the opposite, the working class is fully aware it has to renounce the wage and welfare demands in order to secure the benevolence of the capital. And the capital knows that the working class knows that too. The global free trade, relocation of industrial production, production chains spanning the globe, competition of national monopoly capital in global competitive markets all have radically restricted the economic policy. The local and global governance are becoming increasingly integrated in order to maintain the conditions for accumulation on which the states depend for their taxation. The political space within the nation-state is thus much more limited than before, but just as determinant.

In the aftermath of these developments, the political space has not only been reconfigured in its scope, but also from the inside. The agenda of the left thus finds itself radically constrained by the exigencies of accumulation and class recomposition, resulting in the fragmentation of the workforce and the diminishing effectivity of the wage demand. The liberal and conservative political forces are better at securing the conditions for accumulation than the left, as they can better legitimate to their voters a greater integration into international capital flows at the price of reduced wages and welfare. They can advocate effective inequality through equality of opportunities, benefiting particularly the destabilized middle classes that are at the outset better placed to seize those opportunities. Or, in the case of conservative forces, advocate pre-welfarist forms of solidarity – church, family, and charity – thus acknowledging the worsening situation of the poor and their growing dependence on those forms. A particular twist to this reordering of alliances is given by the existence of a welfare system, its equalizing effect has almost vanished, as those who are better off can both benefit from the parallel access to the public system and private services, while the poor are reduced to an increasingly starved public system.

The resulting political landscape across many countries of the ailing European periphery thus depends on three factors: the dependence of capital on local conditions of accumulation, the conditions the state is able to secure for the accumulation, and the types of social solidarity that predominate.

  1. 4. However, behind this shifting political ground a deeper structuring process is at work: the recomposition of class relations with the diminishing effectivity of workplace struggles and growing significance of struggles for social reproduction (thus making it important to differentiate the structural position of a class and its place in the conjuncture of a historical moment).

Revolutionary movements have been able to achieve more where there was a contested mode of production, be that at the level of a society as in most of the future socialist countries in the early twentieth century or at the level of the world-system during the Cold War period. The potential for progressive structural transformation has been foreclosed at least since 1989, even in situations of deep structural crisis, such as the financial shifts unfolding since 2008. As Aaron Benanav and Joshua Clover have indicated, [7] even the BRICS countries have high levels of fragmentation of the workforce and its subordination to the globally integrated division of labor, with the implication that the structural conditions for the revolutionary proletarian transformation are no longer given there either.

In post-Fordist globalization, the reproduction of capital has become decoupled from the reproduction of the working class. For its reproduction, the working class depends on the errant capital that can exploit global divisions of labor and debt-driven growth to divest from labor’s reproduction. If social reproduction is contested, then it is no longer the wage-relation and the »hidden abode of production« that is the privileged site of contestation. This is already clear from the fact that the attack of recent years has particularly focused on public services, welfare, education, healthcare – commercializing, commodifying, privatizing – shifting costs from capital to labor. But that divestment from the reproduction of labor would not have been sustainable, had it not been enabled by the replacement of buying power through wage by buying power through private debt. Thus the working class finds itself equally under attack as all those who benefited from the redistributive politics and all those who benefited from the expansion of credit: students, the unemployed, the indebted. The working class can exit the capital’s divestment from its reproduction only if it divests from the conditions that reproduce them as a class.

On the other hand, the increasingly proletarianized middle classes find themselves in the same contradiction, yet are waiting to be pulled out of that position by the wind-down of the crisis. The middle classes are thus an ambivalent element of both political change and political neutralization, as could be well observed with the social-democrat middle class constituency in Greece over the last couple of years. Thus, fundamental to the political struggle against the general tendency toward structural adjustments and austerity programs becomes the capacity to seize upon the contradictions between the structural position of a class and its place in the present historic conjuncture.

To this effect it is important to develop forms of organization of social forces that are responsive, that are not committed to what social groups have in common, as they have little in common, but what they can tactically achieve against the general tendency.

Obviously there are limits to capital’s insouciant strategy of divestment and debt, this internal contradiction of the system is the rational kernel of contestations that will perpetuate themselves and continue to have errant, global outlook.

5. Art operates in a field structured and separated by class. Within its structural limits, art can reflect the contradictions and in a conjuncture can act politically in a functional and transitory way.

We tend to easily conflate the political with the attributes of aesthetic judgment. Espousing politics grants recognition and appraisal to the work of art. Yet the socially reflective character of an artwork and its consciously critical position toward the structuring structure of the social reality that we commonly characterize as political might not be political at all. Even if the art is socially structured, situated, and critical, politics remains a separate form of activity, external to art and operating along a different logic of engagement. After all, the art is tehnè, while the politics is praxis. However, exactly because it is socially structured, situated, and critical, the art can’t remain outside of the present conjuncture and the ambit of politics.

Now, the system of cultural production in which the art is embedded is increasingly structured and separated by class. The economic restructuring that has flexibilized the working conditions, made a living wage much more uncertain, reduced youth to unemployment and brought back premodern forms of solidarity, has reduced it to a predominantly middle-class affair. Given the ambivalent position of the middle classes within the political conjuncture, where it is increasingly in risk of proletarianization, yet it is constantly striving upward, the cultural system plays a significant role in the formation of cross-class politics. Art can purposefully and transformatively reflect and criticize the contradicting commitments of the middle class and work to create broader understanding and alliances between the middle and the working class. Art can occupy the liminal space between the bourgeois public sphere of institutions and the proletarianized social forces that are being made redundant through the attack on social reproduction. It can work cross-class and organize social forces, allying with a broad range of social actors, sometimes close – sometimes distant. It can also insert itself upwards in the class structure and economic circuits to critically reveal the mechanisms that reproduce the social domination.

Yet the precondition for art to be able to enter into an effective relation with politics is a political radicalization of the existing social order. Its politicization and its opening up to a possible reconfiguration is the contextual precondition allowing art’s radical critique and radical imagination become politically effective. Without the radicalization of politics the politics of art remains an implausible possibility, an uncertainty, a contingency in search for a politics that can instantiate the contextual conditions for its plausibility.

There’s a deeper reason to this. As Pierre Macherey has noted in A Theory of Literary Production, [8] the work of art does not simply reflect the intentions of the author. Rather it reflects the fact that it is produced under determinate historic and social conditions structuring both the position of the author and the position of the reader. The author is thus never in full command of the work nor do her intentions of this or that kind come off as intended with the reader. The same goes for the work of art considered political: intended as a political intervention, an act of defiance or a pièce de résistance, it resigns its immanent ends and aspires to the truthfulness of statements and political agency lying outside of its capacity to ascertain them. It necessarily has to concede that the truthfulness is not a reflection of intentions, that it is external to the work and conjunctural, so that it always runs the risk of error, demagogy or tautology. Conditions dictate how it can take a political effect and speak truth to power.

While the socioeconomic conditions under which it is made are determinate, an artwork can never rely on achieving determinate effects from understanding them and acting purposefully in them. Even when they intentionally decide to deal with the determinate conditions of production, the authors, and their intentions continue to be conditioned, formed, and misformed by the fantastic (in the Marxian sense) realm of socioeconomic determinations. And yet, in the moments of political radicalization, the works can take on a political orientation, something that Brecht has called »function.« [9] In that process, they take upon themselves the task of responding to the exigencies of political process of social transformation and thereby functionally transform their own initial conditions of production. Art thus becomes political action. It assumes a transient, political character, lasting for as long as radicalization lasts.

  1. Jump Up This is a reworked version of the talk delivered at the symposium titled »Perfect Harmony« within the Transitions festival, Athens, November 27–28, 2015.
  2. Jump Up
  3. Jump Up,
  4. Jump Up
  5. Jump Up
  6. Jump Up Lauren Berlant, »Cruel Optimism,« in: Gregg, Melissa, and Gregory J. Seigworth, The Affect Theory Reader, Durham 2010, p. 94.
  7. Jump Up Joshua Clover and Aaron Benanav, “Can Dialectics Break BRICS?,” South Atlantic Quarterly 113, no. 4 [September 21, 2014]: 743–59, doi:10.1215/00382876-2803624.
  8. Jump Up Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, 1978.
  9. Jump Up Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht [New Edition], 2003.