This is your captain speaking. Political counter-voice in a postpolitical era

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This is your captain speaking. Political counter-voice in a postpolitical era

Gijs van Oenen

Amsterdam, August 6, 2002

Usual parameters of freedom of speech and democracy may largely be in working order, but nevertheless the experience seems widespread that it is increasingly difficult to articulate counter-voices in the contemporary political arena with its networked, globalizing structure. In their book Empire, Hardt and Negri even conclude that, in our post-imperialist world in which there is no longer any ‘outside’, such voices are now irredeemably lost. I contest this assertion by showing how hybrid speech, especially as it is articulated in the (Latin American) genre of the testimonio. Through a particular way of evoking and hiding ‘secrets’, such speech manages to incorporate a ‘cultural proviso’ that resists easy assimilation into hegemonic discourse. Finding counter-voices thus implies finding new forms of testimonio. Ironically, Empire itself turns out to fit this bill very well.


political speech, Hardt, Negri, Empire, liberation theology, hybridity, testimonio, constitutional secrets

This article addresses the topic of political speech, albeit in a way unusual for political theory. It is not concerned with the legal parameters of the freedom of speech; neither does it concern democratic entitlements, in a formal or in a substantial sense. It is interested, in a way, in the issue of inclusion and exclusion, but in a quite radicalized sense. Its central concern is not which groups are somehow excluded from participation in the democratic process of political argument. Rather, it asks whether the whole idea of a purposive government and of critical citizens, conducting a meaningful exchange of voice and counter-voice between them, is not at odds with our present-day experience of politics and of governance. The feeling seems quite widely shared that political opposition somehow cannot find a proper voice – a feeling that certainly has been amplified by the events of 9-11 and their aftermath. Although it is true that, in reaction to the events, rights have been curtailed and that some democratic mechanisms have been cut short, this is not my main concern, at least not in this article. Rather, I want to ask how political theory can account for the feeling that, although most democratic mechanisms are still up and running and most rights still are secure, it is increasingly difficult to articulate political counter-voices.

In this article, I want to articulate and analyze this change in ‘feeling’ towards political speech. My main point of reference here will be Michael Hardt’s and Toni Negri’s much-discussed Empire. This book radically exchanges the traditional, self-assured parameters of the dominant political discourse by other, more diffuse, and less comforting forcefields that, according to its authors, characterize the exercise of power and authority in contemporary global network societies.

Although I do not share Empire’s concrete political analysis, I do appreciate it as a form of cultural philosophy, albeit an unusual and poorly understood form. The book offers valuable insights when we understand, or rather translate, it as an articulation of some crucial contemporary experiences of domination, governance, and resistance (§2). Such a cultural perspective emphasizes the question how local, idiosyncratic political experiences can still be articulated, expressed and discussed in dominant speech or discourse – whichever discourse that happens to be. Unlike Hardt and Negri, I find that authority can still be ‘addressed’, whether in dissent or assent, albeit that such addressing needs special, in some sense poetical means, in order to bring its message across.

Resistance then becomes a form of linguistic struggle, more especially the art of hybrid speaking. Such a way of speaking expresses a demand for what we might call a ‘cultural proviso’ vis-à-vis the dominant culture (§3). A good example of such hybrid speech forms the testimonio, a genre that arose in the context of Latin-American literature and cultural studies. In particular, I discuss the discussion around the testimonio by Rigoberta Menchú, the young Maya woman who received the Nobel peace prize for her testimonio concerning political oppression of Maya people and their culture in Guatemala (§4). Different from Hardt and Negri, I conclude that a meaningful dialectic of authoritative speech and counter-speech, that is to say speech that can join the dominant (liberal, democratic, western/northern) discourse while still retaining cultural otherness and critical potential is still possible. This requires an ambiguous type of speech that enables both writers and readers to resist the process of destroying or assimilating hybridity. Ironically, Empire itself is best understood as such an ambiguous cultural protest, that is to say, as a new form of testimonio (§5).

1. The decay of political counter-speech
This is your captain speaking”. Hearing this announcement through the intercom used to be a reassuring experience. Someone is in charge; everything is under control. The captain, or the government, watches out over us; passengers, or citizens, can sit back and relax. These comforting certainties, however, have evaporated quickly in recent times. In general, of course, governments simply are less in control than they used to be. They have to compete with a host of formal and informal organizations, such as NGO’s, the IMF or the World Bank. Globalization and information technology have extended and speeded up processes of communication, establishing networks of control on which governments have little grip. Political government is less secure than it used to be.

However, the terrorist attacks of 9-11 have introduced a new dimension to these forms of political insecurity. Symbolically, this is represented by the message that the comforting message “This is your captain speaking”, on one of the terror flights of September 11, was in fact relayed by one of the hijackers, who stealthily had taken over control of the airplane. Of course, since then security measures have been strengthened, laws have been ‘toughened’, the powers of law enforcement agencies have been increased, and the president of the United States even has created an entirely new department of national security. But such measures cannot obscure the deep truth of which the hijacker’s deception was in a sense just a symptom: the voice of political authority nowadays sounds shrill and uncomfortable. Its messages get lost on its distrustful or preoccupied citizens, who also find it increasingly difficult to find ways to effectively voice their discontent.

Although of course political authority and dissenting political voices are inevitably each other’s opponents, at least they used to be ‘on speaking terms’. One addressed the other and somehow they exchanged views, if not always in the form of proper argument or discourse. However, the importance of speech and conviction for political authority seems to be in rapid decline. One particular event in the terrorist attacks of September 11 made this particularly clear – although we should note that it is a symptom, rather than a cause of the problem. Before that date, hijackers could always somehow be negotiated with; however minimal, there always was some possibility for speech and counter-speech. The Al Qaeda hijackers, however, did not post demands, nor did they issue any statements. They just carried out attacks. Their only message, “this is your captain speaking”, was of course a cynical lie, but simultaneously it contained an unsettling sense of truth about contemporary political authority. In some important sense it is true that we have no real idea who the real political authority is. Moreover, it is normal, rather than exceptional, that we take the speech of political authority as being routine messages, relayed to comfort or reassure us, rather than engage us in serious discussion or controversy. Up to an (important) point, political speech is actually meant to fall on deaf ears.

Not just in airborne states of exception, but in regular life on earth as well, doubt is settling on the potential and the importance of political speech. Administrators often talk about democracy and the voice of the people, but their natural interest lies in pre-empting serious opposition through the timely ‘polling’ of the population. The population, in turn, shows little interest in politics, in the sense of contributing to the informed discussion that drives public opinion formation. They tend to identify mainly with issues concerning their own material wellbeing, although at times they are willing to let themselves be swayed by political rhetoric on ‘values’ and ‘morality’.

In a skeptical mood, we might feel that both politicians and citizens are nowadays mostly engaged in making noise. In a more constructive sense, we may say that politics – as interplay between government and citizens - becomes more theatrical, aesthetic, and quasi-utopical. Not by coincidence, the most lively forms of political expression in contemporary political culture can be found in the – by now almost ritual – confrontations between western leaders of government and business, and demonstrators against globalization (or at any rate, the present form of globalization). Intense and theatrical exchanges take place at these confrontations, although not much of it takes the form of argument, from either side. Despite this lack of argument or of regulated discussion, or perhaps even because of this, many people feel that something essential takes place in these exchanges. It proves difficult, however, to give adequate expression to this feeling.

Hardt and Negri’s book Empire has quickly gained cult status, probably because it succeeded better than the mainstream analyses in political theory to express this feeling, and the anxiety that forms part of it. It focuses on the perceived distance between ordinary people trying to find ways to bear the weight of common life, and systems of power that frustrate them in their attempts.1 Can these authoritative systems still speak to common people, or be spoken to, in a meaningful way? Does their authority still have the form that mainstream political analysis attribute to it? Does it still make sense to give ‘voice’ to the people (‘freedom of speech!’), when all particularist claims and criticism are liable to be assimilated, forthwith, into the hegemonial system called ‘Empire’? Who can still stand up to its assimilative powers?

‘Empire’ is not an easy concept to catch, perhaps precisely because of its power to incorporate and assimilate everything it encounters, making it literally a ‘catch-all’ concept. It refers to a radicalized form of capitalism and/or imperialism, a form that became necessary once these systems had destroyed or assimilated the last remnants of an ‘outside’. It should be conceived as ‘a universal republic, a network of powers and counterpowers structured in a boundless and inclusive architecture’ (p.166-167). Different from traditional imperialism, Empire extends and consolidates the model of network power, supporting ‘the globalization of productive networks’. Contingency, mobility, and flexibility constitute its real power (p.200). To produce and maintain this power, however, it ‘deploys a powerful police function against the new barbarians and the rebellious slaves who threaten its order’ (p.20). Worse, it is parasitical in the sense that it is ‘a mere apparatus of capture that lives only off the vitality of the multitude’ (p.62). It is in a sense nothing but an economy of control.

History, for Hardt and Negri, is to be conceived as the succession of ways in which ‘the multitude’ is formed or ‘adapted’ literally as a function of the development of sovereign power; in other words, a form of class struggle with only one class which fights the amorphous power responsible for its constitution, government, and exploitation. Admittedly, it was always a problem for traditional marxism (and communism as well) to explain what political relations would actually express, once the struggle with the dominating power had been won.2 For Hardt and Negri, politics simply is the seemingly eternal struggle with the unfathomable power constituting us and dominating our life. They call this an ‘immanent’ view on politics, an oxymoronic conception of what we might call postpolitical politics. Keeping checks on the power(s) that be, through democratic processes or otherwise, or even challenging it through less ruly forms of resistance, is no longer on the Empire agenda. As Carl Schmitt proposed, politics is about resisting an enemy – but under our present circumstances we seem unable to establish either the identity or the locus of the enemy with any degree of certainty or conviction.

Such an analysis proposes a radical solution to the problem posed by the phrase ”This is your captain speaking”: there no longer is a captain speaking to us, and anyway authority has nothing to tell us. Speaking to us at present is ‘Empire’, an amorphous and ever expanding world-encompassing economic, social, and cultural system that is not answerable to any captain, nor is it in fact responsive to any natural language. Partly for this reason, we as citizens are losing our voice. We do not know whom to address. Even if we would know, we would be lost for a language to register our dissent.

However different they may be, Habermas’s theory of communicative action, Foucault’s genealogy of disciplinary society, and even Derrida’s deconstruction of authority all still identify issues like normalization and exclusion as the most important political problem. At least in that sense, they all belong to the category of normative political theory. Empire, in contrast, primarily offers - or advocates - a new style of political thinking and (above all) feeling. It is no longer concerned either with the exclusion of otherness, or with forms of resistance against assimilation by dominant discourse. Hardt and Negri in fact reject normative political thinking, because they feel that all known strategies of resistance are already ‘outflanked’ by the strategies of power (p.138), just like modern corporate culture is able to immediately transform opposing forces, whether they be moderate or radical, into updates of effective management strategies. Instead of ‘divide and conquer’, we are now being governed through the strategies of ‘incorporate, differentiate, manage’ (p.201).

This sweeping view of the end of all normative political views might easily lead to desperation. Not for Hardt and Negri, however; to paraphrase the fin-de-siècle phrase, they find the situation desperate, but not alarming. In traditional anarchist mode, they consider a call to resist authority unnecessary, because the rejection of authority is ‘natural’. Because resistance cannot occupy a critical outsiders position, it has to turn ‘inside out’. ‘If there is no longer a place that can be recognized as outside, we must be against in every place. This being-against becomes the essential key to every active political position in the world (...). Here we see once again the republican principle in the very first instance: desertion, exodus, and nomadism. Whereas in the disciplinary era sabotage was the fundamental notion of resistance, in the era of imperial control it may be desertion.’ (p.211-212) Partly for this reason, according to Hardt and Negri we should aspire to ‘mondial citizenship’ (p.400). Not to express our maturity or responsibility, as Kant would have it, but for the more negative, Spinozist reason that we cannot be denied either the right to move, or the right to remain, wherever and whenever we feel to exercise it.

Their exotic (or perhaps quixotic) notion of resistance renders Hardt’s and Negri’s political perspective problematic. Being counter-establishment, or even subscribing to the Public Enemy political message (‘You’ve gotta fight the powers that be!’), does not equal rejecting or fighting authority – both in the sense that such an attitude may be a mere aesthetical, or even cynical, gesture, and in the sense that political rebellion may well arise even without this attitude. The first point is probably the objection raised most often against Hardt and Negri (as well as against many other ‘postmodernist’ or ‘cultural studies’ views on politics). The notion that ‘resistance is everywhere’, evoked earlier by Michel Foucault, is normatively powerless – what to think for instance of resistance against democracy, or the rule of law? After all, these can just as well be considered ‘regimes of power’ to be contested, as the history of communism, fascism, and authoritariansim attest to. Political authority, even if functioning as part of ‘Empire’, may of course very well support valuable social and political goals, instead of merely being oppressive (whatever that means). The second point is a moral-psychological one. Studies in moral psychology for instance show that people can accept repression or submission for a long time, but are likely to rebel only when they feel to be treated unfairly or unjustly.3 In another vocabulary, they suffer not from oppression ‘as such’, but from the feeling that their person, or their contribution to society, is not sufficiently appreciated, or recognized.4 Therefore, even if Empire’s diagnosis were correct, its proposed therapy probably would not follow.

Empire thus fails to provide a convincing connection between social experience and political action. It is therefore understandable that a classical left-liberal critic like Alan Wolfe calls the book a ‘lazy person’s guide to revolution’.5 Still, I feel the book has value even without such a connection, albeit that this value is to be found in another register than that favored by the authors themselves. Even if it expresses itself in a very different kind of vocabulary, and situates itself in a very different kind of tradition, I think Empire is most profitably understood as a form of ‘cultural studies’.

This change of perspective is similar to that recommended by Axel Honneth with regard to the question how to appreciate the Dialektik der Aufklärung from a present-day perspective. Just like Empire, the famous book by Horkheimer and Adorno strikes present-day readers simultaneously as very convincing and very implausible.6 As Honneth explains, it is already difficult enough for any serious critical analysis of social injustice to explain whether its criterion for injustice is based on a hermeneutical or a rationalist point of view. In the case of the Dialektik der Aufklärung, the even more difficult claim needs to be substantiated that society is based on a false representation of the good life. Given contemporary value pluralism, and the lack of consensus on what human nature consists in, such a claim cannot rationally convince. Nevertheless, Honneth argues, they can be presented in such a way that they strike us as an adequate form of ‘therapeutical self-criticism’. Rather like a flash of lightning, they present us with a shrill, sharp-etched, sobering view of our present society. Or, as Honneth puts it, they provide a ‘pathology diagnosis’ – a normative judgment on society that is not so much rationally justified as ‘intentionally evoked’.

This, it seems to me, is the most promising way to approach the analysis unfolded in Empire. It may not convince us, but it does somehow strike us. It contains some important criticism about the way we are governed nowadays, and the kind of political experiences this produces. But even if Empire avails itself of the vocabulary of political theory, its diagnosis is not best understood in terms of this discipline. Rather, we should interpret it as a form of cultural criticism which challenges the ways in which dominant forms of political theory make certain experiences of political oppression or suffering fit the mold of dominant, liberal theory, thereby robbing these experiences of their voice and their authority.7

2. Empire and liberation theology

We can make a first step towards the ‘culturalization’ of Empire (and the clarification of ‘Empire’) through the work of Manuel Castells, whose trilogy The information age analyzes comparable structures and experiences from a different, sociological point of view. Like Hardt and Negri, Castells finds that the new capitalist order now does without clearly identifiable actors. For the first time in history, the basic framework of economic organization lacks a collective or individual subject – a framework that in Hardt and Negri’s politico-ontological view is presented as ‘Empire’, while in Castells’s sociological-communicative perspective it appears as the network.8 Similarly, Castells does not oppose ‘imperial control’ to ‘the multitude’, but instead juxtaposes ‘the interacting’ to ‘the interacted’: the interacting are those who are able to assemble their own ‘multidirectional circuits of communication’, while the interacted can only choose from a restricted menu of prepackaged choices (p.371).

The second part of Castell’s trilogy, The power of identity, implies a shift of perspective from objective, socio-economic analysis to a concern with individual experience and identity formation.9 He emphasizes, as does for instance Richard Sennett,10 that only the ‘interacting’ elite is able to organize their process of identity formation in the form of ‘reflexively organized life-planning’, as Anthony Giddens has called it. Other identities can no longer find an anchor in civil society, ‘because there is no longer continuity between the logic of power-making in the global network and the logic of association and representation in specific societies and cultures’ (p.11). The search for representation therefore takes place ‘in the reconstruction of defensive identities around communal principles’; most social action ‘becomes organized in the opposition between unidentified flows and secluded identities’ (id.). In this logic, it is inevitable that identity politics ‘grows from communal resistance’ (id.).

Instead of moving beyond identity politics, the network society thus gives new meaning and relevance to identity politics, as witnessed in such phenomena as religious fundamentalism, nationalism, and ethnic identification (p.12). Like Hardt and Negri, Castells does not conceive moslim fundamentalism as traditionalist (p.16). Such an identity is not formed through a return to tradition, but rather by ‘working on traditional materials in the formation of a new godly, communal world, where deprived masses and disaffected intellectuals may reconstruct meaning in a global alternative to the exclusionary global order’ (p.20). Furthermore, ‘through the negation of exclusion, even in the extreme form of self-sacrifice, a new Islamic identity emerges in the historical process of building the umma, the communal heaven for the true believers’ (id.)

It seems to me that Empire underwrites and exemplifies both the diagnosis and the implications of Castells’ account. It diagnoses the networked nature of today’s global hegemonic institutions, while simultaneously itself constituting a theological-philosophical protest against it. Near the end of the book, Hardt and Negri openly refer to Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, albeit that the suffering masses nowadays dwell ‘on the imperial surfaces that lack both God the Father and transcendence’ (p.396). Besides from globalization, the masses suffer from an unspecified ‘corruption’ or degeneration, formulated hypergenerally as a ‘rupture of any determinate ontological relation (p.201-202). Hardt and Negri’s answer here is ‘immanent labor’, the teleology of the masses consisting in ‘the possibility of directing technologies and production toward its own joy and its own increase of power.’ (p.396).

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