or The Revolutionary Strategy of Forgetting Strategy (Sometimes): On Activist Reason, Consciousness-Raising, and the Real Production of a Social Strike

Justin Murphy writes on the intersection of the ideas of consciousness raising and social strike politics.

1.) Everyone asks: what is this odd dream we keep referring to as the social strike? How can we speak of striking given that the strike is, as they say, no longer a thing? I can already hear my activist and organizer friends snickering, that I speak so dismissively of the beloved strike, the proof they once had some power and will again. But indeed, activism and organizing in general is really no longer a thing. I, and presumably most other people, are bored by activists and organizers. Even those I am closest to, even those I have the most relative faith in, I am typically bored by them to the degree their perspective still basically revolves around how to make activism and organizing “work.” For my part, I am writing here not as an activist or an organizer, just one person who opposes the current form of human existence and is dedicated to collectively overhauling it before death takes me, as it did yesterday and as it will later today. I begin this essay on personal terms not because my own experience is especially important, but to offer my own case as a kind of introspective ethnography. I could write this as a sharp impersonal theoretical piece hoping to establish myself as a cool and useful theorist—of course as a typically insecure and alienated person I crave such recognitions—but that is precisely the type of elementary dissembling that constitutes a Valuable Activist Contribution at the cost of preventing honest and therefore real revolutionary connections from emerging. In a society as dishonestly sophisticated as ours, hopelessly useless honesty becomes revolutionary method, as I will try to demonstrate here.

2.) The problem is that whenever I start talking in terms such as life, existence, and death—general terms, loose terms, honest terms, that is, everyday speech about my life, my feelings, my deeper fears and goals and what has always brought me to back to the revolutionary position—it is always the most active of the activists and the most organized of the organizers who are least able to understand. In many cases, with sometimes laughable rapidity, it is assumed that I am simply not educated in the radical activist catechism. If I give some historical or theoretical references to convince them I know a thing or two, I am typically pigeonholed into whatever niche of radical theory my vocabulary or appearance seem to suggest. At the very best, the kind ones will try to help me turn my positions into a proposal or some such product that makes activists and organizers happy.

3.) For a while, I took these exchanges seriously. I stepped back, I listened to my elders, I learned, and I blamed myself: maybe I am just being negative, maybe I am just obsessed with my own feelings, maybe I am lazy or inarticulate or mumbling, maybe I just do not have anything to contribute to revolutionary politics. Ever since the end of Occupy back in the US, I have done my respectful best to contribute meaningfully to currently existing struggles and projects. But each day I fail to experience genuine revolutionary social transformation, I find it harder and harder to justify investing myself in activist projects. All the typical bourgeois excuses for resignation become increasingly tempting, compared to the blind alley that almost all currently available activism and organizing just honestly feels like.

4.) From this experience, an insight emerges. If activist engagements sometimes make me think about quitting altogether—if radical activist circles cannot at a bare minimum retain the political energies of a relatively privileged and educated person who is actively and purposely trying to defect from status quo politics into dedicated, organized revolutionary politics—then really the activist incapacity to co-mingle and multiply with non-activist revolutionary energy must itself be a primary problem. If there is an “energy crisis” today, it operates much more at the level of interpersonal bio-chemistries than fossil fuels, for only the former can explain the absurdity of the latter: only a world-historical pacification of basic energies could explain how many humans cannot even find it in themselves to resist their own extinction.

5.) I should be clear that I am not trying to contribute to currently existing activism, in which case I would be easily pigeonholed into the anti-activist activism tradition. I love my activist and organizer comrades and friends, but whenever I frame my perspective as a simple friendly offering, I am beginning to realize it is they who sometimes honestly cannot decipher that I am actually raising a serious challenge and intimating a fundamentally alternative model. So I am not trying to constructively engage activism from within it, which has never achieved anything; the critique of “activism” from within radical circles is long-standing, but activism is too good at protecting itself. If it seems like I am coming out swinging, it is only because I am increasingly dumbstruck by how good activists are at not hearing anything but their own language. I am not trying to distinguish myself against anyone, itself a typical pathology of activist behavior which I would rather deflate at its roots.

6.) Almost all currently existing revolutionary politics is essentially doomed to prevent revolutionary energy from appearing within its orbit. The entire history of radical politics under capitalism is a tradition in which activists primarily sell the commodity of optimism, in order to earn social capital for their activist firm (in the form of members or cachet). The traditional vessel for delivering customers the optimism they now shop for is some practical strategy for obtaining collective benefits. Long ago this was naturalised as just, on the grounds that one honestly believed one’s activist firm would deliver the collective benefits to make it all worthwhile. The problem is that this treats humans as objects to be organized, so that even if the collective benefits are obtained, the humans who joined the activist firm are farther from liberation than when they started. Activists duped them into relinquishing their humanity for material benefits, and indeed they helped dupe the activists into believing that such a basically dehumanizing organization of relations and priorities could ever advance liberation.1

7.) Today, very few of us would ever actively lie or manipulate or mislead for radical ends which we believe would justify such sinister means. But yet, very few of us want to be radically, unlimitedly honest as an independently worthwhile aspect of revolutionary transformation in its own right. Who would want to proclaim that we are hopelessly alienated, overworked, unhealthy, atomized, insecure, and simply have no idea how collective liberation can be produced from where we currently find ourselves? But yet, on the whole this is the case, and whenever these facts appear they are neurotically repressed in truly symptomatic fashion. Even in the most open organizing spaces, too much theoretical interest in these facts is seen as immature, ill, digressive, narcissistic, undeveloped, or at best tolerated as a therapeutic need of the speaker (which we later need to figure out a way to strategically translate into something practical). Revolutionaries remain unable to see that such naked facts of our predicament are themselves of primary interest, and that they are produced by orienting ourselves to each other as objects to be strategized, not solved by such an orientation. This is likely because it would not sell to simply say we are united by our radical honesty in having no answers, and so beholden are we to this logic that if we cannot imagine it selling then even we have a hard time believing in it. And it would not satisfy the need of current activists for whom activism is its own satisfaction as a platform for feeling ethical and efficacious and optimistic.

This need of activists to feel that one is already a valuable member of an adequately effective political project is one of the greatest enemies to initiating liberating social contagions simply because it is false: we are not really valuable members of any nearly adequate political project, so long as we remain this incredibly far from true freedom and equality, or anything that is even approaching its achievement. Most people are “apolitical” because they know better than us not to be duped by us. And within our own circles it is markedly counter-revolutionary to try and translate honest despair into something practical, almost by definition something falsely practical. Indeed it is the activist addiction to optimistic practicality that enshrines us in the despair of being nothing more than objects, because whenever honesty breaks through the charade of false strategic shrewdness, the obsessive desire to make something valuable out if it returns the subject to an object, precisely when the subject is trying to break out of value production, and precisely when and where it should be able to.2

8.) Lo and behold, there is a formidable tradition of radical politics which seizes directly on the massive, latent repository of honest relationality repressed by institutionalized domination (and traditional activism no less).3 Its chief modern political signpost is known as consciousness-raising. Most popularly associated with 1970s socialist feminism, I would define consciousness-raising as the dedicated practice of honest relationality which is not reduced to some larger strategic necessity to which it would need to justify itself.4 Consciousness-raising is also one significant focus within Plan C. And yet, even within Plan C, consciousness-raising seems to function as a side project. At the recent Fast Forward Festival, where one of the big questions revolved around advancing the concept of the social strike, it is remarkable to me that consciousness-raising as political practice did not seem to come up (at least not in the sessions I attended), as a significant pointer toward what exactly a social strike might entail. Given that the concept of social strike remains to many unclear, it stands to reason that our inability to integrate consciousness-raising as central to the idea of the social strike is not just an overlooked connection but a deeply conservative blockage symptomatic of the dubious, actionist optimism described above. It is hard to resist the inference that consciousness-raising may be seen as a kind of feminised supplement to real revolutionary politics, even within Plan C, useful as therapy and solidarity but only to the degree that it feeds into practical strategic value. This is comparable to how personal honesty shared in activist meetings finds no home unless it can be translated into something practical for the optimism market.

9.) Thus a second insight dawns upon me: In fact, consciousness-raising is social strike in situ. Any instance of consciousness-raising, in the general sense I defined above, is literally a social strike against the value production and extraction which take place interpersonally in almost all human interactions under contemporary capitalism. At the same time that it halts the production of status quo value, it produces fundamentally new sociality which is not merely “feeling.” If you have ever had the experience of transformative interpersonal honesty, you know that its products are veritable material resources. Clarity, trust, empathy, acceptance, confidence in oneself, and ultimately joy, which from Spinoza to Deleuze has long been recognized as essentially the most elemental capacity to move and be moved: these are not feelings, they are weapons. Learning how to collectively produce joy is the only thing that “social movement” can really mean, in the first instance, especially given our world-historically severe alienation and anxiety. Consciousness-raising is not a feminine respite from strategic revolutionary action; it is the science of revolutionary action itself, for only this tradition takes seriously the crucial question of how to produce collective energies from separated alienations in a fashion which is not immediately stolen through some “larger” but alien sieve which is somehow always labeled “productive.”

As far as I can tell, this is what the Institute for Precarious Consciousness has in mind when they speak of constructing machines for fighting anxiety. Although even they see consciousness-raising as ultimately subordinate to “action.” My argument is that this instrumental subordination of consciousness-raising to some kind of “action” is precisely where and how capitalism short-circuits our subjective desires and atomized powers, re-wiring them back into the status quo despite our sincerest commitments to making revolution. In Inventing the Future, Srnicek and Williams provide some striking etymological evidence that their own will to subordinate consciousness-raising to “action” may perhaps be more anchored in an exploitative logic of market value than they care to explore: they ask, critically, when consciousness-raising sequences are supposed to “pay off,” lest the affective bonds produced by consciousness-raising “go to waste” (pp. 7). What if the problem in activist circles is not so much “folk political” tendencies with inadequate strategic perspective but rather the neurotic-repressive will to hyper-strategically translate every possible human energy within our orbits to some kind of radical version of “cash value,” which precludes the very possibility of our alienated subjective energies from fusing into larger collective dynamics? The problem would not be that “folk political” tendencies lead to failed social movements, but that instrumental reason as the psychological bedrock of a capitalist order makes us squelch each others’ diverse micro-movements before macro-movements could even be imaginable (as we try to make something valuable out of each other, to appear and feel valuable ourselves, to write books and articles, including this one, etc.).

10.) In this perspective, it is not that consciousness-raising is a kind of emotional therapeutic support to primary strategic collective action such as the strike. Rather, most of what pretends to be strategic collective action, such as the strike, is a kind of consumption or expenditure (usually wasted) of the militant psycho-physical energies produced by the everyday strategies of radical consciousness maintenance. Consciousness-raising is the psycho-physical (emotional, cognitive, and even bio-chemical) social reproduction of resistant collective action itself. Therefore, in my perspective, to join the social strike simply means to orient one’s life toward maximising the free, militantly non-exploitable joy circulating among those beings who constitute one’s lifeworld, including especially oneself. And to do this in explicit opposition to all of the currently existing social and political institutions whose very existence is literally owed to the fact that they long ago agreed to turn these energies over to the status quo order. Of course, it is immediately obvious that such processes of energy maintenance already happen everywhere, every day. The problem is that such energy maintenance is rarely if ever lived as a larger project of evacuating status quo value and increasing the commons, in such a fashion that can accumulate as an overthrow of contemporary institutions. Even in most radical circles, we might brag in private about our daily refusals and subversions, but only before or after the “meetings.”

In my perspective, “organizing” a social strike means figuring out how to cultivate a contagion whereby already common tactics of micro-liberation become explicitly anti-institutional, increasingly bonded in alliance (if only in implicit reference), and simply more frequent, more widespread, and increasingly ungovernable. We have to reckon with the possibility that the subjects we wish to become, and the types of human energies we are seeking to proliferate, would actually be too joyous to even submit to the ways of thinking and types of interaction currently associated with radical politics. This does not mean folks should not have meetings, but in this perspective one becomes aware of how the object of meetings might be radically different than what is baked into the current psycho-physical dynamics which bring folks to activist meetings in the first place. This is not a rejection of strategic thinking as such and is more than the basic “prefigurative” position that we should model the world we want to see. Rather I am presenting here a specific causal pathway to strategic leverage of a revolutionary magnitude, but the pathway is through a radical unhinging from instrumental rationality (i.e. the strategic, essentially exploitative mindset which pacifies our mutual encounters before they even begin).

11.) When asked what is the meaning of this idea we call the social strike, I therefore would say that it is simply the qualitative and quantitative expansion and intensification of consciousness-raising to the threshold at which the collective store of energy we withdraw from status quo value (reserved for our own non-instrumental enjoyment and flourishing) outweighs the store of value held in reserve by the status quo. When I speak of energy I am not referring to any kind of mystical or New Age notions: all I have in mind is the process of literally making ourselves and each other’s immediate lives actually more valuable and desirable than anything the institutional status quo can offer, until this becomes publicly and zealously true for a non-trivial percentage of the population.

It is not that “we” have to radicalize the ignorant and complacent others, quite the contrary; activists have to educate and practice ourselves out of our current, generally dishonest selves to simply become ourselves honestly, as much as possible, not just in special private spaces but increasingly in all spaces at all times, so that we increase our life with others (the commons itself) in actual movements of irresistible and uncontainable defiance. Because this would represent the real acting out of new collective energies rather than the performing of old energies we merely assume we are supposed to perform, we would be producing a source of actual, lived power from which strategic collective action might once again become possible. The spread of this type of behavior and attitude in deeply held and publicly political, interpersonal solidarity, beyond as small a threshold as 10% of the global population, would represent a fundamental threat to global capitalism. I am not saying this would be easy, but it is at least a concrete macro-vision with what social scientists would call “micro-foundations,” i.e. a plausible account of how individual-level dynamics could feasibly aggregate into the desired macro-level phenomena. This is more than one can say about many implicit mental models of revolutionary change dominant in activist circles, as evidenced by the simple fact that people are not exactly flocking to the revolutionary cause quite yet.

[1] Here I feel like I should cite a long list of readings to establish my intellectual bona-fides and urge you to read them, but there is no reason to assume that more reading would make you more revolutionary. I don’t even know you. If you want to, just Google shit or I would be very happy to email with you; if you don’t want to learn more, then me telling you to read certain things will just make me seem more powerful than you and make revolutionary politics feel to you like work. Why radicals think it is revolutionary to recommend readings to people, I cannot understand for the life of me.

[2] Of course, I am not saying that rational strategic logic should be exorcized from all aspects of human life, or that it plays no part in the thought-processes which feed into revolutionary politics. I am only pointing to a deeper, longer-term rational utility to the sincere and complete qualitative unhinging from strategic calculation. In other words, if you insist on the strategic attitude, then think of my position as a meta-strategy for overcoming why current strategies aren’t producing revolutions; mine is a meta-strategy of radically defusing the strategic fetish in order to make possible the actual interpersonal dynamism which ”strategic thinking” suffocates before it can even leave the gate. In other words, I am not pushing for a cult of purely irrational, non-sensical attitudes or behaviors; I am pushing for a highly rational disarming of certain deeply automatic defense mechanisms, rooted in instrumental reason, which prevent the group processes that make resistant sub-populations dangerous enough to force change. These self-pacifying automatisms enter activism before we even think about what to contribute to radical political discussions because they are rooted in the deeply habitual presumption of seeing each other, including our own selves, as means to ends rather than ends in ourselves.

[3] Some will say that honesty is not the issue, that it is not a matter of looking deeper into our own souls to see the world as it really is. On this point I find it interesting that as radical critics we agree that modern society is capable of the most incredible mystifications, and yet the possibility that there exist pervasive mystifications at the level of our own self-understandings is seen as implausible. I find this more odd than the idea that radical introspective inquiry may be a natural dimension of any real revolutionary politics. Based on everything we know about modern human beings (here one could cite figures from Heidegger to Arendt to Goffman), I would think looking deeper into our own interior lives and our deeply habituated ways of living and presenting ourself to others would at least be acknowledged as a worthwhile area of inquiry.

[4] When I refer to honesty, one should not imagine merely the conventional image of a noble introspector who confesses their lies. True honesty implies the entire thread that links the emotions and judgments of individual to their everyday perception of themselves and their surroundings, and ultimately to the choices on which they will choose (or not choose, in bad faith) to stake their lives. In other words, far from reducing the political tradition of consciousness-raising to mere introspection, defining consciousness-raising around a generalized political honesty is indeed to view it quite epically. Of course, this larger perspective on the radical politics of the personal is what 1970s socialist feminism knew perfectly well. While 1970s feminist consciousness-raising was interlaced with a strategism which played its own important roles, what I am arguing here is that, empirically, I believe it is the radical will to honesty that drives, and can even constitute its own, strategic actions—for it is only the will to honesty which can energize and bond a reality realer than bourgeois society, which is then concretely dangerous, powerful, and genuinely actionable.