Society as Protection Racket

A familiar feature of organized crime is the protection racket. In this scheme, a mob leader demands to be paid to protect a business. If the fee is not paid, then that same mob leader attacks the business — hence you are first of all paying the fee to be protected from your protectors themselves.

The same logic repeats itself in mainstream society. Taxes are a protection racket in the sense that if you don’t pay them, you aren’t exposed to the violence of criminals or foreign terrorists, but first of all to the violence of the government itself. The labor market is another protection racket, because in the last analysis you’re not working just to earn money, but to avoid being excluded from the economic system altogether. Many religions also duplicate the same logic, as you are asked to be devout in order to avoid a supernatural punishment that would not be a factor if you didn’t already believe in the religion — so in mainstream Christianity, for example, God is giving you an opportunity to avoid God’s own wrath.

From this perspective, one can understand neoliberalism as doubling down on the protection rackets. The system demands ever more intensive performances of obedience in order to avoid the violence of the system itself. In the mafia scenario, you can pay your fee and go about your business, just as you could imagine paying your taxes or putting in your hours at work and going about your business. Under neoliberalism, though, you are expected to be constantly thinking about your taxes and how to game the complex system of tax credits and penalties, and you must also mobilize all of your resources (all your time, all your social connections, all your hobbies and preferences) in service of the labor market. Even the evangelical Christian groups most in tune with the neoliberal ethos demand more and more constant self-examination and church involvement — you can no longer go to church on Sunday and expect God to leave you alone the rest of the week.

Agamben’s political theory, whereby the signature gesture of sovereignty is to exclude, can be understood as a theory of the protection racket, and his quest is to imagine a political order not structured according to the logic of a protection racket. This is what provides its remarkable contemporaneity, despite its often esoteric and obscure content.

More broadly, I believe we can view the elimination of the protection racket as the ultimate goal of the radical left, and we can define causes as left-wing to the extent that they at least aim to mitigate the protection racket. Hence the push for universal health care, which keeps the job market from extorting one’s participation based on concerns about one’s physical health, or the more radical goal of universal basic income, which uncouples some minimal participation in economic life from the demand to work. It is important in both cases that the provision be in principle unconditional, so that the system of benefits itself does not become a new protection racket that can demand certain performances of obedience — as has happened most vividly in the UK’s welfare system.

The goal is not simply justice, then, but freedom — freedom from continual threats and demands, freedom from having to worry about things. This is surely a more meaningful form of freedom than the abstract freedom of “choice” offered by neoliberalism, a false freedom insofar as we can never be free of the demand to choose, can never go a single moment without getting hassled or evaluated. The goal of the radical left, at least in our contemporary situation, could be formulated as the creation of a world in which society leaves us alone.

Why does the Left keep getting defeated?

Beginning in the late 1970s, capitalist elites began a deliberate, carefully planned attack on essentially every institution that provided a material basis for leftist organization and loyalties. That attack was hugely successful, in large part because most of those institutions had largely devolved into self-serving bureaucracies bent on preserving their own privileges with no eye toward a greater struggle.

At the same time, the Soviet Union entered into a crisis of leadership, revealing that it had been unable to reproduce the conditions for its continued political viability in the “native Soviet” generation that had never known a pre-Revolutionary state of affairs. When a member of this generation (Gorbachev) did finally take control after the last halfway plausible candidate from the gerontocracy had died, it began a sequence of political events that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and marked the end of international Communism as a major global force.

Hence within the space of a little over a decade, both the domestic material base for leftist organizing and the external threat motivating some compromise with leftist demands had been rendered effectively moot. This allowed the forces of reaction to accumulate unprecedented military and monetary resources to press their agenda — a trend that only gets worse with each passing year. Even when the capitalist elites were at their weakest, in 2008, they were still able to bounce back and reestablish the trend in their favor, and surely that’s because they had such a huge head start.

In my mind, all of these material factors are much more pertinent than identity politics or rhetorical strategy. Indeed, it seems to me that antagonizing broadly left-wing groups that are organized around particular identities, as many white leftist intellectuals apparently feel duty-bound to do, is the surest way to exacerbate an already terrible situation by alienating groups that are actually able to put “boots on the ground,” if you will.

It’s not about persuasion or arguments, but about trust and loyalty — and if black communities, for instance, don’t trust the white male leftist intellectual elite, then maybe that’s not proof that black people are divisive in their insistence on identity politics, but rather that the white males themselves are the divisive party, squandering what should be a natural alliance on the left in favor of their abstract preference for supposedly more “universal” causes.

I know this may be hard to process, given that white males are trained from birth to regard themselves as the direct embodiment of the universal, untainted by mere particularities. How could we be the divisive ones, given that we are immediate unity itself, the telos to which everyone should aspire? Yet I can’t deny my own experience from the milieu of academic theology: all “identitarian” theologies are in a rich and productive dialogue across groups and with “mainstream” white male theology as well. If a white man is willing to take all of them seriously, they’re more than happy to be in dialogue with him as well (trust me, I’ve tried this and it works). It is strangely the “anti-identitarian” white males, disdainful as they are of the pollution of mere particularity, who are walled off into their own little ghetto, boldly pronouncing their “universal truths” to an audience of basically no one.

And it’s unclear why anyone should give a fuck what the self-appointed white male representatives of leftist universality have to say, given that it was the institutions they built that proved so useless in the face of the neoliberal onslaught. The white-male-first (oh, I’m sorry, class-to-the-rigorous-exclusion-of-any-other-identity-first) strategy has failed, definitively. The left is thrown back onto the part-of-no-part, the unassimilables, the ones the system structurally cannot buy off. Hard as this teaching is for us poor, long-suffering leftist white men, James Cone’s demand that we become “ontologically black” may be more immediately practical than the abstract assertion of a class-first, class-only strategy. For example.

These Young Men Are Heroes: Kill the Whitey in Your Head


It is quite possible that tomorrow we will wake up this photo on the covers of major newspapers. Reportedly the photo was taken in Ferguson, MO where the militarized police force murdered a young man named Michael Brown in cold blood for the crime of being Black in america. The anger at this injustice is not the anger at just this iteration of the open season on Black people in america. No, this anger runs deep, it runs down to the very foundations of anti-Blackness the wealth of the West was built upon. In the morning, today for those reading it, you may have woken up to the media using this photo to spread anti-Blackness. The body of the young Black man as a violent body, as a threatening body. That’s what they want you to see. But they want you to see that because the media is a wing of american white supremacy, it enshrines the cultural values of white supremacy through the way it directs your vision. Resisting that, refusing it, is a small part of the resistance that is required.

The militarized cops in Ferguson and the rest of the structures of the state want you to look at these photos and see scary “black boys” whose violence may be committed against you (and especially the “you” who is white or middle class or can pass as such). But that is not what is happening in this photo. These young men are heroes. These young men are braver than the shock troops of capital showing up with the powers of air, land, and sea to fight individuals with barely any weapons. These young men are braver than the cops in Ferguson, MO who take off their badges and ID tags. Who hide behind machine guns, tear gas, body army, urban tanks, and other accoutrements of the modern cowardly police officer. When you see these young men refuse to pathologize their blackness like the media wants you to do. Did they kill an unarmed teenager? Did they respond to their crime against humanity by refusing to face up to it? And when their community rose up to demand justice did these young men shot teargas, wooden and plastic bullets at people standing on their own lawns? Did they declare a no-fly zone and kick out the reporters, suspending the 1st amendment? No, they did not do that. White supremacy did. A popular piece of graffiti in the 60s read “kill the cop in your head”. Well, today the imperative for you today is to kill the whitey in your head. When I see these young men I see an ultimatum and an imperative. Something that I would hope I could live up to, even while I fear I would not. These young men inspire me. The cops and their actions are ugly, but these young men, well, they are beautiful.

Genocide vs. War

I think we can all agree that the reality that the term “genocide” is meant to represent — the systematic destruction of a race or ethnic group — is a horrible crime. Everyone is obviously against “genocide,” and that is precisely what makes it such a potent tool in legitimating war. Virtually any war could be presented as genocide, because the point of war is to use violence against an enemy group until they either submit or are destroyed.

Civilian deaths can’t serve as the criterion, because contemporary military techniques make civilian deaths inevitable. Even worse, it is difficult to distinguish between combatants and civilians outside the highly idealized context of two recognized nation-states facing off using only uniformed troops.

The difference, in both cases, is intention. They want to kill for the sheer sake of killing, while we do so with deep regret. They hope to kill the maximum number of civilians, while we regard it as tragically unavoidable “collateral damage.”

The parallels with the use of “terrorism” are striking. Again, we can surely all agree that the reality that the term “terrorism” is meant to represent — random violence for the purposes of terrorizing the population at large — is a horrible crime. But here again, it seems that war in general is terrorism by this definition. As is well known, in the ultimate “Just War” (World War II), the US purposely targetted civilians (including with nuclear weapons!), not for purely strategic reasons, but precisely to break the spirit of the population as a whole. How can we distinguish those campaigns, or subsequent ones like the carpet-bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia or “Shock and Awe,” from terrorism?

Again, the difference is intention. Terrorists kill out of motiveless malignancy, while we have a good reason. In other words, they’re evil, while we’re good — hence whatever they do is definitionally evil, and whatever we do is definitionally good.

For the purposes of political discussion, then, I propose that we redefine both terms. Genocide is a term for acts of violence by a state or state-like actor that is not allied with the West. Terrorism is a term for acts of violence by a non-state entity that is not allied with the West. In this respect, both belong to the legacy of Cold War political moralism — where “totalitarianism” designates political systems other than liberal democracy in countries not allied with the West, for instance, or “human rights violations” are, for all practical purposes, definitionally only committed by countries not allied with the West.

It’s like Schmitt says — a claim to transcend politics, as in the postwar attempt to translate politics and war into the sphere of morality, is one of the most aggressive possible political moves.

The (somewhat) rational basis for the US-Israel alliance

As the Gaza crisis intensified, I’m sure I’m not alone in having wondered why the US’s support for Israel is so absolutely unconditional. What’s in it for America? Hasn’t it reached a point where Israel is a liability and should be cut loose?

This post is an attempt to account for the seeming unshakability of the US-Israel alliance, on the basis of what would seem like good reasons to the bipartisan political elite. It seems that the core “US interest” motivating it is the desire to maintain the overall stability of the global capitalist system, which means assuring an uninterrupted flow of oil from the main oil-producing region on earth. Please note that it’s not a question of the US itself directly wanting to steal the oil or something — it’s maintaining the overall equilibrium of the global system in which US corporations and the US military operate.

Once it is conceded that this goal makes sense, the politics of the Mideast do not look promising. You’ve got a lot of potentially hostile factions, some nationalistic, some religious, some a combination of both. The borderlines drawn as part of the decolonization process don’t help, but redrawing them would likely lead to instability and conflict. The religious element is a further problem — an Islamic state is likely to have goals other than the free flow of capital and to be less susceptible to the kinds of incentives the US can offer. Hence: lockdown. Anyone who can keep the oil flowing and keep a lid on the population gets US support.

Yet — and here’s where it gets even uglier, if that were possible — all those dictators, whatever their other merits, are swarthy Arabs. How can (racist) Americans trust such people? Better to go with the more natural ally: Israel, which is led by people who are basically white Westerners. This element of trust became all the more essential after the end of the Cold War, when Saddam Hussein demonstrated that even previously faithful clients can go rogue. Similarly, we can assume that the importance of the alliance with Israel only increased when the Arab Spring called into question the Americans’ traditional methods of controlling political outcomes in the Mideast.

On their side, as the political situation in the Mideast destabilizes, Israel sees increasingly clearly that they are the only game in town for the US and that they can basically do whatever they want without endangering their aid or privileged status. And so the vicious cycle continues.

Does anyone have a better explanation?

Untimely Italians: A Profile of The Italian List and Interview with Alberto Toscano

When someone begins to study European philosophy and theory, or Continental philosophy as the unhelpful designation goes, the focus is usually on the traditions of French and German philosophy (leaving the term analytic to denote the work of the British, those living on that island off the coast of Europe proper). The relationship between this kind of national identity and those philosophers varies. Oftentimes the position of these philosophers disappoint us, as with Bergson during World War I writing about “French spirit” needing to overcome the “German barbarism” or Heidegger during the rise of the Nazi party in Germany doing much the same with more horrific results. But there is something to naming these traditions if only because the way in which language and location shapes one’s thinking, to say nothing of the importance of particular political situations that arise within these fictional but nonetheless efficacious spaces of the various nation-states. Italian philosophy has largely been ignored by those anglophone readers interested in European thought. This despite the fact that the fictional element of the nation-state is perhaps nowhere better on display than Italy, which never quite coalesced its various cultures into a singular Italian culture the way that French republicanism did. This creates an interesting dynamic and leads to a different style of philosophy. This seems to me to hold especially true for leftwing theorists and perhaps arises from what Roberto Esposito identifies as the clear manifestation of antagonism within the Italian context. Nothing like Italy the nation-state exists except through the process of conflict, the creation of antagonism that continues when Italy the nation-state has to become a part of Europe the economic union.

Italian philosophy has long been an interest for many authors here, with Adam’s work on Agamben and my own less intenstive work on Negri, as well as with many of our readers. We have here discussed Esposito’s attempt to reclaim the distinctiveness of Italian philosophy, already mentioned, and many readers will be familiar with the collection edited by Lorenzo Chiesa and Alberto Toscano The Italian Difference with re:press. So I was excited to see that Alberto was editing a new series called The Italian List with Seagull Books (which has the support of the University of Chicago Press, but apparent autonomy from the usual deadends of academic publishing). While the list has published three shorter texts by Agamben, I wanted to highlight the lesser known figures that Alberto and Seagull Books were bringing to a new audience. In what follows you will find a conversation between Toscano and myself as well as a few side remarks where I provide some summary information about the texts. Because of the length of this post I have also generated it as a PDF for those who prefer that medium for reading longer texts. Read the rest of this entry »

‘Even Lenin’: In the Vanguard of Accelerationism

I am, as usual, late to the accelerationist party (unlike Dan Barber and Josh Ramey, to whom I am clearly indebted here). Reading the Accelerationist Manifesto properly for the first time recently, I was struck by something. ‘Even Lenin’, we are told, supported the idea that socialism depends upon the technological transformations made possible by capitalism.

‘Even Lenin’ makes it sound as if the great Bolshevik were an unlikely ally. Accelerationism is, after all, positioned as breaking with the Luddite shibboleths of the established left. And yet one of the things which stands out from the manifesto is its seeming commitment to the greatest of all far left shibboleths: vanguardism

Social movements – no doubt Occupy is in the crosshairs here – are dismissed for their fetishisation of democracy-as-process, horizontal organisation, communal immediacy and localism. Instead, we are told that ‘Secrecy, ver­tic­ality, and ex­clu­sion all have their place as well in ef­fective polit­ical ac­tion (though not, of course, an ex­clusive one)’. A left intellectual infrastructure is called for, and the means for this will be a left version of the neoliberal Mont Pelerin Society, ‘tasked with cre­ating a new ideo­logy, eco­nomic and so­cial models, and a vision of the good to re­place and sur­pass the ema­ci­ated ideals that rule our world today.’

For what it is worth, I think the manifesto is right on the money in identifying the crucial factor of the hegemony of neoliberalism and the evident failure of the left to respond. It is also surely correct to argue against a fetishisation of traditional forms of protest, or an aversion to technological change. Why, though, is it apparently prepared to endorse a tactic which has been such self-perpetuating disaster for large parts of the radical left?

Let me give an example close to (my) home. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the UK is a Trotsykite organization of a few thousand members, but it has frequently had a higher profile and impact in left politics and movements than its size would suggest. Over the last few years it has been in turmoil, because of the way it handled allegations of rape and sexual harassment leveled at a senior party member.

This is not the place to go into detail about that case, which is well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say that, for many of us, it exposed the utter failure of a certain kind of politics, in which the ‘ideology’ and ‘vision’ came from the centre, from a Central Committee elected on a slate system which was hugely difficult to budge. As a corollary, the party was woefully ill equipped to take on the lessons of feminism and social movements other than through attempts to co-opt and re-educate them through front organisations.

At this point, it is important to acknowledge that the Manifesto endorses a pluralism of organisations and methods, and a spirit of experimentalism on the left. In an interview, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek have cited networks such as Plan C alongside feminist initiatives around basic income as essentially working along the right lines. So I am not trying to crudely tarnish accelerationism with the misogyny and bullying found in various far left sects.

However, I become concerned when it is implied that a central hub can be constructed to filter and connect these ideas and practices, since that is just what Central Committees imagine themselves to be doing (even if what is envisaged is much smarter and better funded than a small far left party). And I am especially disturbed by the rather easy characterisation of social movements as obsessed with ‘internal direct-​democratic process and affective self-​valorisation’ as opposed to which ‘Real democracy must be defined by its goal — collective self-​mastery’. How can we simply leave ‘democracy-as-process’ behind, if chauvinistic sectarianism and authoritarian centralism are to be avoided?  (as a footnote: during the SWP crisis, branch meetings were addressed by members of the Central Committee, and representatives of an opposition faction. The Committee member was allowed 30 minutes contribution, the opposition was allowed 5-8 minutes. The justification was that the Committee member was the one who could set the debate in its ‘proper political context’. ‘Democratic centralism’ in action – and this is only one of the most benign examples).

Process matters: if the process of revolution is one of instrumentalising democracy and our desires, then it kills the very thing it longs for. Accelerationism’s recognition of the need for experiment augurs well here, but it should lead to a further realisation: particular shared experiences of non-capitalist space and community matter. They may be local and ephemeral, but it does not follow that they are tied to ‘localism’ or that they are ‘merely’ ephemeral when set alongside ideas of reason. In fact, I’d argue these experiences are indispensable to rationality as a form of embodied discernment.

There is no politics without affect. The manifesto itself sees the need for ‘affectively invigorating’ visions of a transhumanist future. But the notion of constructing affects is fraught with danger, not least the production of future legions of self-intoxicated militants and dictatorial organisers, whose principal affect to date has been one of joyless immersion in sacrifice. Please spare us from the heroic vanguard, speeding ahead to save us from the future they have already grasped.


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