Escape: A Talk

Chisenhale Road 1951 by Nigel Henderson 1917-1985This following talk was presented last week at the 2012 North American Anarchist Studies Network conference. The Q/A period was perhaps more interesting than my talk. If you look around, you’ll find the videos.

Today, I will do three things:
1) Sketch a model of the State
2) Outline our terrain of struggle
and 3) Fill your arsenal with a few political weapons

This paper is a gloss of my current writing project, which is entitled Escape. Like many, I love stories of leaving it all behind, whether those are tales of fed-up employees quitting their jobs, restless romantics hitting the road, or the enraged laying waste to the civilization around them. Yet my thinking about escape originated from an academic interest that began after reading a curious comment early on in the popular book on “running to the hills,” James C Scott’s “The Art of Not Being Governed.”

To build the context: In this book, Scott looks at people who sought refuge in the highlands of southeast asia to evade the abuse and enslavement of early imperial states. To do so, he reconstructs both the functionalist elements of states that emerged through wet-rice cultivation in alluvial valleys and the material characteristics of escape-ee’s way of life in the hills, from the crops they cultivated to their religious proclivities. Yet, in less than a sentence on an early page in the book, Scott disavows the contemporary significance of this work. He writes that the Modern State “is so novel and its dynamics so different that my analysis here makes no further sense in Southeast Asia for the period after, say, 1950” (11).

Scott’s sweeping qualification raises two important academic points: first, why is “running to the hills” no longer escape?, and second, what are the contemporary forms of escape? Moreover, the answers to these points raises two subsequent political questions: how does an outmoded concept of escape cloud our current images of revolt, and how can the contemporary forms of escape be made revolutionary?

At the beginning, I promised you three things – to sketch a model of the State, to outline our terrain of struggle, and to fill your arsenal with a few political weapons. So let me begin that process.

At its most basic level, the State is the realization of sovereignty, which has two poles. This formulation comes from George Dumezil, whose comparative work on Indo-European myths identifies the role of two forms of authority in classic texts. These two types of authority are headed by two figures, the King and the Priest, and operate through the bond and the pact, or as we call them today: the conquest and the contract. In contrast to the anthropological definition of the state, which is largely functionalist and therefore contingent, Dumezil’s mythological analytic draws a clear picture of two types of authority still present.

But, in addition to the those two poles, there is a third term – war – which is exterior to political sovereignty and distinct from its two poles (ATP: 424-5). This follows from the assurance there is always a subject of the outside: warrior, barbarian, highwayman, or whatever the State calls what it can’t under-stand. And this outsider stands for the basic unit of politics: a being that already exists on its own terms without the State. We can therefore say that the politics of the State is merely the enclosure or appropriation of an already existing politics, captured and put to work for the State. This State is a cold monster that lives on forms of life captured between its two poles; a ghoul that is propelled by a dynamic interaction between its poles that “animates the State with a curious rhythm” (ATP: 424). Or more simply: controlling escape is the fundamental operation of State politics.

To move a bit in the future, today, one State-form is dominant: Empire. But to sketch that State, four others should be quickly described: the Archaic State of Conquest, the Priestly State of Contract, the Modern State, and the Social State. Let me first clarify, however, that these States do not progress from old to new or basic to complex; rather, every figural state is a potential within every State and may be actualized alongside others in a single state.

The first two States, The Archaic State and the Priestly State, each realize a pole of sovereignty in isolation. The Archaic State is a manifestation of brute authoritarianism. The frightening King, the personification of the first pole, reigns by fear and conquest. He never asks, he only demands. The Priestly State, on the other hand, is pure consent. The kind and just Priest, the personification of the second pole, reigns through the peace and prosperity of the contract. Yet what the Priest calls peace is merely organized violence. The Priestly State organizes violence through its subjects by means of discipline and logistics, which forms a general system of flows.

The next two States, the Modern State and the Social State, are made of complimentarities built between sovereignty’s two poles. In the Modern State, the two poles of sovereignty are neither separate nor mixed but fused. In The Modern State, the two poles are The Police and Publicity. The Police ensures that every thing is put in its proper place. Publicity sees that every action is provided a public explanation. These poles are the result of four operations: separation, organization, spatialization, and systematization. And it is through these four operations that the Modern State discards the mythological ground of the Archaic and Priestly states and gains a footing in the divergent paths of economics and politics through liberalism.

While the Modern State de-personifies the two poles of sovereign, the king and the priest, it still organizes society from above, like a commander sending troops into the field. The Social State does not wield the two poles of sovereignty as two different tools to ply matter, but rather it connects them through by making those two poles co-extensive with the whole social field. And to regulate that field, the architects of the Social State invented an art of government called “The Social.”

In this transformation, the two poles of sovereignty are made into Biopower and The Spectacle (Introduction to Civil War §48). The science of The Police is stripped of the moral philosophy from which it was birthed. The Police governs possibilities through the science of prevention, but with Biopower, this pole is given the additional task of conditioning possibility itself. Moreover, the relative autonomy of the public sphere is taken from Publicity. So, in addition to determining what appears, The Spectacle shapes how those things appear. In short: The Social is a collection of worlds made evident by The Spectacle and Biopower (Call Scholium II).[1]

Now returning to the initial thesis of ‘running to the hills,’ it is my contention that running away is a geo-spatial problematic of escape specific to the Archaic, Priestly, and Modern States. For those States, greater proximity from the State lead to new forms of life. Yet today, this is no longer the case.

To elaborate, I will complete my first task, modeling the State, while simulteanously performing the second, outline our terrain of struggle.

Governance continues long after the mythic State breaks its final bond (or pact) and the social factory produces its last subject. Today, there is Empire, which governs the sprawling form of The Metropolis.

But The Metropolis is not a big city, it is an exteriority. It is not centered, a center of accumulation, a center of exchange, a hierarchy, or even a homogeneous culture. Rather, The Metropolis is a pure exteriority that abolishes the line between the town and the country. When farmers text-message at the wheel of their GPS-controlled tractors and squatters sleep in electricity-less homes nestled in the heart of downtown, the breakdown could not be any more obvious. What is left, if anything, is a zig-zag without a clear inside or outside but a delirious mix of high-rises and slums. The Metropolis therefore performs the same essential function of cities: polarization, as in the production of differentials. Less apparent are the escape routes, for distance-demolishing technologies such as ultra-fast transit, satellite imaging, and communication networks make previously remote hideouts easily accessible to The Metropolis.

The Metropolis could also be described as the space of “There Is No Outside.” But more accurately then, it is everywhere where there is no longer a visible Outside, for The Metropolis presents itself as if it is composed of nothing but exteriorities. The Metropolis embraces a basic maxim of The Spectacle: “Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear” (Society of the Spectacle, §12). By integrating The Outside rather than defeating it, whole worlds otherwise recognized on their own terms are made into parts of a single continuous system.

And The Metropolis is commanded, but by a State-form and not a State. Like in the Social State, The Police into Biopower and expands Publicity into The Spectacle. However, The Social is everywhere in crisis and The Metropolis has taken its place. And what has taken over Biopower and The Spectacle is not a State and does not even use a State as its point of departure; it is Empire.

Most attempts to describe Empire have failed. Those failures usually result from the seductive search for ‘subjects’ behind actions [Nietz]. Kafka’s laughter has only gotten louder as he cackles at those still hunting for a singular authority who can bring justice to the world. Empire is not a conspiracy of corporations, one world state, a congress of states, the IMF, the World Bank, ‘polycentric sovereignty,’ or grassroots power. “Empire does not confront us like a subject, facing us, but like an environment that is hostile to us” (Introduction to Civil War, §66). Furthermore, Empire is not a new positivity – it is not a new world power, an ideological innovation, or a fresh set of laws. At most, Empire is not even an event but the norms and devices used to prevent the event. And thus at its limit, Empire is nothing but the summation of all the reactionary forces of the present; it is everything that prevents the future from breaking with the present.

Although it would be a mistake to identify Empire as a positivity, the evidence of its existence is everywhere. Those traces are the daily reminder that intensive abstractions have a real existence through their extension. If Empire therefore exists in its extension, then it can be said that Empire is circulation and Empire is management.


Now that we have a model for the State, which is the capture of escape, and an image of our terrain of struggle, the sprawling expanse of the Metropolis, it is finally time to develop some new political weapons. I call this process: DISEMBOWELING THE METROPOLIS.

As the organic whole of the social state is taken over by a the Metropolis, social systems no longer maintain consistency through unity. Rather, the ‘social’ sphere formerly unified by a normalized set of behaviors is being eclipsed by an anti-social world of marginals, undesirables, and illegalists.

This gritty underworld of the Metropolis has been explored before. Think of the noir detective, working his way through the strange world of sex and violence one cigarette at a time. A similar investigation that goes after the five ‘veins’ of the biopolitical tissue of the Metropolis. But instead of solving a crime, it shows how each of the ‘veins’ includes discussion of how they are turned into forms of contestation.

There are five veins: (i) the violence produced by machines of subjection; (ii) the technical systems deployed to manage material flows; (iii) the consumer marketing that coordinates an economy of representation; (iv) the forms of visibility utilized by modes of communication; and (v), the death of ‘The Social’ brought about by Empire.The first two veins are a development of The Police, or Biopower. The next two are a development of the public, Publicity, and the The Spectacle. Moreover, there is a line of flight for each one of the veins of the Metropolis.

These lines of flight of the Metropolis are more ambivalent than the directors of Empire let on. As Ani DiFranco says, “every tool is a weapon, if you hold it right.” So, the technical machines of the Metropolis use tools to produce an introceptive composition of desire, and this inward folding expands subject’s capacity for receiving directions and meaning. The result of this fold is a gravitation center around which States build passional assemblages. Weapons, in contrast, are projective forces defined by their speed and vector.

The Metropolis contains its own weaponization – I mean the process of expropriating tools for re-use as weapons. The theory begins by looking to the way in which connexions forged by the technical machines of the Metropolis give birth to product in excess of what can be immediately put to use. Anarchist are familiar with salvaging practices that utilize waste or products that are discarded before their use-value is expended.

Fully outlining the following how the four veins are weaponized is beyond the scope of this presentation, but let me give you a taste of each one.

In the first vein, violence, looks to the “the blood that has dried in the codes”, by effectively arguing that the law is a codification of routine violence that delegitimizes organized self-defense. The guiding question here is: what happens when groups that are violently pacified by Empire declare enmity against Empire? Alternatively, what happens when they choose less antagonistic forms of struggle? Or to put it in other terms, what is difference between violence ‘war’, ‘politics’, or something else completely.

The second vein is The Spectacle of Consumerism. As The Metropolis develops, visuality has changed how it mediates consumer capitalism. Looking at an economy of representation, it moves from the commodification of things to a cascade of images that facilitates the fragmentation of modern life. This fragmentation and alienation has already been explored in both fantasy and reality. The fantasy world is best imagined in cyber-punk and real underworlds full of clutter and noise – dense ecologies that give birth to informal or illegal activities. The maxim for escape here is: saturation is your ally.

The third vein is the compulsory visibilities of the Metropolis. Consider, for instance, that there are relatively autonomous layers of visibility unique to the Metropolis. As meaning is transformed code, for instance, new forms of control but also escape have emerged. We see these potentials in anonymity on the internet, from online commenting to fraud, widespread piracy, and other forms of activity made available through anonymization. At base, this vein points to the potential for new networks of communication based on anonymity.

I finish with the fourth vein, the death of the social. The Metropolis, Hardt and Negri argue, is diagram for organizing encounters. Underneath the street lies a new common, they say, a substance not based on scarcity but a plentitude that expands with every use (like language, which thickens and gains richness with every use).

But the question of the Common, and all of the veins of the metropolis, is ultimately revolutionary and not prefigurative. We will not find better versions of ourselves in The Metropolis, but what we will find is the negation of our miserable lives.

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