Reality’s role in representational politics is uncertain anyway. And the less appreciation a political system has for that which is being articulated through reactions, the more likely the real will crumble into a stupid, annoying interruption of a governmental proceduralism, which today seems advised by a mix of Machiavelli (‘We must give the people a good show, so they believe they have wise and just rulers who care about them’) and McKinsey (‘We must make the people work for the show, so they will more likely believe what it shows them’).
Officials shake their heads, in honest frustration or cynical satisfaction, when manifestations of “the people’s will” produce obstructive instead of constructive results. The only answer you get when you press the plebs for a reaction, it appears, is a stubborn No: to a building project in their city, or to EU membership, or to refugees. In referendums and elections, we see reacting take on a reactionary character.
This should hardly come as a surprise after people’s reactions in the name of ‘the people’ have been systematically denied to convey anything beyond a thumb up or down, in response to an imposed question, for the longest of time. Cornered, like a child whose parents shout “So do you want this?,” the electorate expresses an “I’d prefer not to,” either by not voting at all or by spitting into the face of the political establishment. And if, for once, the state truly reacts to a situation, as the German government did when it decided to open borders for the refugees who were stranded in East Europe under terrible conditions in 2015, right-wing populist parties are thriving because the citizens feel resentment about not having been asked whether they want the foreigners in or out.
The same resentment informs much many-to-many communication in social networks. Where people reinforce each other with their racist and sexist rants, until some threaten to kill politicians at public demonstrations or set fire to refugees homes celebrating this as a political act of resistance, we do not see a wild mob, which would be the other of the nation state’s proper people. Those people are ‘the people.’ In a sense, they behave like they do because they do not know how to be anything else than ‘the people’ although this collective identity has become abominable to them. They disidentify with the image of themselves reflected back to them by how the politicians behave (the image of sheep, mainly); but their way to articulate how they are not this image remains identifying people who are to be excluded from ‘the people,’ like Muslims, People of Color, non-heterosexuals, feminists, intellectuals, etc.
While a left “small-a anarchism” (Graeber) has been able to embrace the loose, occasional collectivity of online communication for the reason that the Internet seemed to prefigure a non-statist, non-hierarchic and less institutionalized civil sphere, experiencing the same freedom without any practical knowledge of what to be but ‘the people’ catalyzes auto-aggression—because why are you still a member of this tame, sheepish collective politicians are callously referring to as ‘the people,’ if every trolling tweet or Facebook post resonating with likeminded makes you feel wolf pack power? And the historically established, all too well-rehearsed movement for breaking out of that auto-aggressive circle is that of the pogrom.
As dumb as such reactions appear, we should bear in mind that the dumbness of ‘the people’ is not the result of individual intellects added up (the procedure of counting votes must not fool us into assuming one can summarize people or what they are thinking). This dumbness is the very product of an economic-social-political apparatus that disavows the inherent richness of reacting, narrowing down the feedback of the governed to an alternative of acceptance or rejection, Yes or No, A or B, wherever possible—and attributing everything better to the (fiction of the) creative act.
There is an almost absurdly wide gap between the image of creating a different, a better world, which has been planted in our minds binding our appetite for change to the desire for a new, clean beginning, and the reality of reactions, cut off from the power to do anything but confirm or obstruct.
Politically, there is no need for more creativity (or a more thoroughly creative creativity that would envision the other, the impossible, the utopian future). Rather, we ought to make an emancipation of reacting our goal. If democracy is to mean more than ‘nation state cum regular elections, and perhaps the possibility of referendums’—if change shall emanate from the power of the Many, of people organized politically along the lines of their living together, we better invest some knowledge and commitment in breaking loose the multiple actuality of reactions from the stupefying dichotomy of confirmative-constructive and reactionary-obstructive.
[from an essay I am currently working on]