Tuesday, 15 December 2009

War or commons: Part 2

(continued from Part 1)

Let me start with a recapitulation. I am interested in what form social relations take in what I call no-man's-lands, spaces that have escaped regulation, usually because they are considered useless or because they have been abandoned or not yet discovered. I distinguish such spaces from "commons", which are never as open to outsiders or unregulated as no-man's-lands. Social relations in a "commons" always rest on an agreement that the commons should be shared. Thus squat-houses can usually be seen as a form of "commons" while abandoned houses or ruins are better seen as no-man's-lands.

No-man's-lands are interesting since they appear so much more unregulated than a commons. The closed nature of the Japanese commons (iriai) was propabably one reason why Amino Yoshihiko was so much more interested in the far more "open" concept of muen. The closure of the commons is also pointed out by many others. ”Historically, common property rights were recognized and enforced for members of a bounded community. Thus, common property is usually distinguished from ’open access’ or unappropriated resources” (Elisabeth Blackmar, "Appropriating 'the Commons'", in N. Smith & S. Low, The Politics of Public Space, 2006:51). Elinor Ostrom too emphasizes how the commons must always have clear boundaries, rules, monitoring, outside recognition, and so on. In other words, a commons is a far more institutionalized space than a no-man's-land. A commons is open to all (defined as the members of a collective), while a no-man's-land is open to anybody.

Being unregulated, no-man's-land will also tend to reset social relations. Norms and status in outside society become bracketed. "Prohibitions are prohibited", as Denis Wood says of what he calls "sheltered spaces". The question, then, is whether the freedom of no-man's-land is compatible with social relations at all. Isn't a Hobbesian "war" the only alternative to some measure of institutionalization?


So what do social relations look like in no-man’s-land? A good starting point is Hobbes's Leviathan, which famously portrays no-man's-land or the condition of statelessness as a state of war "of everyone against everyone" in which the life of man is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". Before preceding with my argument, it might be useful with a few quotations to remind ourselves what Hobbes is saying.
To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues. Justice and injustice are none of the faculties neither of the body nor mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his senses and passions. They are qualities that relate to men in society, not in solitude. It is consequent also to the same condition that there be no propriety, no dominion, no mine and thine distinct; but only that to be every man's that he can get, and for so long as he can keep it.
We can note how great the role of property is in Hobbes's thinking. The state is necessary, not just as a guarantor of personal safety but also as a guarantor of private property, of keeping "mine and thine distinct". The concern with property is also evident in the counterargument which Hobbes uses against those who feel that his portrayal of man is too somber. Don't you too lock your doors, he asks, and does not that mean that you too distrust your fellow men just as much as I do?

Let him therefore consider with himself: when taking a journey, he arms himself and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his doors; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there be laws and public officers, armed, to revenge all injuries shall be done him; what opinion he has of his fellow subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow citizens, when he locks his doors; and of his children, and servants, when he locks his chests. Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions as I do by my words?
Here, however, we can already see how Hobbes's argument begins to unravel. Isn't he committing the mistake of which Marx accused the economics - projecting a very modern and recent image of man as an egoistic "rational man" onto the screen of the state of nature? Surely, we've all visited rural towns where people don't lock their doors.

If Hobbes's portrayal of man is not universally valid, then we should ask oursevles what kind of society he took as his point of departure, and that, of course, is civil war - a condition where egoistic "individuals" are produced by the circumstances (Hobbes himself suggests as much when he argues that the condition of nature can be glimpsed whenever "the manner of life which men that have formerly lived under a peaceful government use to degenerate into a civil war").

The faultiness of Hobbes's argument about human nature is even more evident when he points to the "savages" of America to counter the objection that no such warlike state of nature ever existed:
For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small families, the concord whereof dependeth on natural lust, have no government at all, and live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before.
The "savages" of America of course did not live a life of "war of everyone against everyone". They lived in tribes, in federations, in societies. Hobbes seems to be confusing the condition of lawlessness with a condition of normlessness. This is evident, for example, when he argues that a condition of statelessness is also a condition where there is no "society".

Hobbes's argument almost becomes laughable when he writes that "men have no pleasure (but on the contrary a great deal of grief) in keeping company where there is no power able to overawe them all".

Durkheim provides an updated version of Hobbes's argument by taking norms into account. Just as Hobbes deplored the horrors of statelessness, Durkheim deplored the horrors of anomie or normlessness.

However, there are things beyond both the state and the system of norms. Durkheim's mistake is to portray the norms of society as an ordered system that needs to be conserved and regenerated. Norms don't need to be ordered into a system to provide meaning and orientation to human action. Norms can be fluid, negotiated, hypothetical, essayistic. And does anyone really believe that people need a "power to overawe them" to experience pleasure?


So what do social relations look like beyond state and system? Let's turn to Victor Turner’s ideas of liminality and communitas. “Liminality” (derived from limen, border or threshold) is defined as a condition of slipping through the network of classifications – being “neither here nor there” and “betwixt and between” – that normally define states and positions in the social space or “social structure” (Turner 2007:95). We can immediately note how similar the state of liminality is to what I have called no-man’s-land. Used to describe the intermediate stage in rituals of passage, Turner points out that it is frequently likened to death, being in a womb, invisibility, darkness, bisexuality, or wilderness. Furthermore, a person in this state possessing nothing: he or she is near nakedness, with no status, no property, and no rights. He or she is being reduced or ground down to a uniform and helpless condition – close to what Agamben calls “bare life” – in which he or she must obey and accept punishment and humiliation without complaint.

What characterizes human relations among those who share the condition of liminality is communitas, a feeling of universal sisterhood or brotherhood, an unstructured and undifferentiated oneness which is potentially coterminous with humankind and in which everything is sensed to be possible. Turner describes this state as “anti-structure”, a floating togetherness in which people are liberated from whatever roles, statuses, functions or identities they may have possessed in ordinary social life. In later writings, he refers to Czikczentmihalyi’s notion of flow to describe the experience of this state.

We should note that the experience of communitas is not limited to the “liminal” rites of premodern societies. In occurs in modern societies too, but typically in less predictable forms, such as during revolutions. Turner uses the term “liminoid” for these, to distinguish them from the “liminal” forms embedded in rituals. I’ve always thought that the following quote by Bakunin from the February Revolution in Paris 1848 offers a good example of how communitas can be experienced.
It was a festival without beginning or end; I saw everyone and no one, for each individual was lost in the same enormous strolling crowd; I spoke to everyone without remembering either my own words or those spoken by others, because everyone’s attention was absorbed at every step by new objects and events, and by unexpected news. (Confessions, quoted in Viénet 1992:71)
In a more polished form, we can hear the echoes of communitas in Schiller’s "Ode to joy", which was originally entitled "Ode to freedom", in reference to the French Revolution. Examples could be added in infinitum. Take festivals or carnivals, or the spontaneous mutual help one can see in the wake of big disasters, like earthquakes, the networks that are formed, the soup kitchens that spring up like mushrooms…

Despite their ephemerality, moments of communitas offers us hints of an alternative way of organizing the economy that call to mind a Bataillan economy of abundance, a way in which at least briefly private wealth is turned into a source of common use. We can see this in the millenarian movements of the bakumatsu-years in Japan. Famous are the “ee ja nai ka” riots which spread across the country in 1867 and 1868 – incidents in which poor townspeople celebrated the reports of religious amulets (omamori or fuda) falling down from the skies by taking to the streets under wild ecstatic dancing and singing, which was often taken into the houses of the rich or of public authorities where the dancers would demand food and drink. Sometimes they demanded money and clothes, which was immediately thrown away or given to others. Like in the Ise-odori and other earlier millenarian movements the 17th and 18th centuries the dancing was linked to a belief in yonaoshi, an imminent renewal of the world through which old hierarchies would lose force and riches and wealth would be redistributed and circulate freely in society.

The experience of communitas is unfortunately very neglected in sociology. In fact, its striking how many of the classical concepts and distinctions of sociology that cease to be valid for the kind of fleeting and spontaneous togetherness that is characteristic of communitas. Human relations in a mass of people that gathers on the street are neither those of Gesellschaft nor of Gemeinschaft, their sense of universal oneness neither that of organic nor of mechanic solidarity, and the rationality used in street fighting on the barricades is not a reifying “iron cage”. Bakunin’s plans were surely not informed by communicative reason, but neither was it strategic or instrumental in a Habermasian sense (Cassegard 2007a).

We can note the closeness between liminality and what Amino calls muen. As Turner also points out the conditions of liminality and communitas are often considered sacred. This opens up the possibility for conceiving of communitas on the basis of a radically different form of “political theology” than that envisioned by Schmitt (2005) or Kantorowitz (1997), whose works focus solely and one-sidedly on theology of the sovereign, of kingship. Turner helps us to see that that democracy, or the free association between equals, also has religious roots, namely in the experience of communitas. Kingship and democracy represent two forms of religiosity. The idolization of the ruler is the religiosity of worship, or “faith” or “belief” in the power of the other. The experience of communitas is the religiosity of participation in or oneness with the holy, through ritual or meditation.

To return to Turner, his major contribution is that he reminds us that there are two major forms of human interrelatedness: not just “structure” – a differentiated, often hierarchical system of positions, an arrangement of positions or statuses, involving the institutionalization of groups and relationships – but also “antistructure”. It’s all to o common, as he points us, to forget the latter and simply equate the “social” with the “structural” (Turner 2007:96). What this means is of the utmost importance for understanding the human relations of no-man’s-land. Certainly, there is a risk that no-man’s-land will simply degenerate into war and lawlessness, into anomie or a total breakdown of the social as such. But it is by no means necessary. As Turner writes: “Beyond the structural lies not only the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’ but also communitas” (Turner 2007:131). We could also formulate this insight in the following way: the breakdown of the social system does not necessarily result in anomie, as Durkheim feared.

Oh, as if that needed any proof! Just think of travel. What happens when you travel? Your brain and heart start to work because they feel that you're alive again. It's good to travel because it's good for your soul to be torn out of the social contexts and the identities in which it always falls asleep when it stays too long. Durkheim is wrong: to be free from society is not always anomie, of – if it is – then all anomie is not bad. It makes us see how trivial our worries are. It makes us come alive.

The emphemerality of communitas

The problem, however, is that communitas is unstable and ephemeral. It constantly balances on a precipice, threatening to revert into social breakdown or anomie. Revolutions, disasters, festivals – surely that’s also where we find the worst egoism: pilfering, murder, atrocities committed with a chilling casualness, for the most trivial of benefits. As Turner points out, communitas arises where there is a sense that everyone is striving in the same direction, side by side, carried forwards or upwards by the same grand wave of history. But for such a "soft wing" of joy or freedom to envelop every single individual is rare. There will always be dissenters, even when everyone is to drunk or excited to notice. And dissenters will grow in number. The festival will end. The wave dies away. Unity always falls apart.

I think it’s time for an example. In my last entry I mentioned Kinji House, and the sense of excitement and exhilaration that participants seem to have sensed in the beginning of the squat. One expression of this appears to have been the cleaning up they started as soon as they had moved in: “A place belongs to the ones who clean it”, Ogawa Kyôhei writes, adding that “cleaning is love” (Ogawa 1997:227f). Another expression was the feeling of new possibilities, an exciting uncertainty about what one earth would become of the project: “Rather than ‘what should we do’, Kinji was ‘what will become of it’”, Ogawa writes (ibid 231). I think there is much here that proves that a communitas arose in the early days of the squatting: the feeling that things that ordinarily appeared self-evident, fixed and natural had become fluid, that ‘anything can happen’. Sure, you are there and can participate, but at the same time, you can’t decide it all. Things have already become too big. Lukács once characterized the mood of the essay as love for an unborn idea. Similarly, the mood characterizing a communitas can be described as a love for what “will become of it”, even though it is wholly unknown.

I also mentioned that one of the participants in a the squat criticized it for having “aimed at a square but failed and ended up as a wasteland”. The reason for this assessment was the sheer diversity of participants which meant that communication broke down and that there was an uncertainty about what rules were in force. Here he clearly seems to be arguing that Kinji House degenerated into a state of anomie. As communitas died away, so did the sense of possibilities. Let me quote Ogawa again.

Some thought that I, who triggered it all, was irresponsible. They would probably not listen if I suggested to them that we should do something together again. For me, I has lost the self-confidence to suggest such things, or rather I’ve lost all desire to do it. This is the biggest problem Kinji House has left behind. But ‘what will become of it?’ ought to be something good. I don’t understand. The only thing I can say is that ‘what will become of it’ and ‘whatever’ are different. The difference lies in curiosity. As Kinji gradually slipped out of control, as it finally overwhelmed me and when it was actually destroyed, I was unable to utter a single word. But in reality it never slipped out of control. What really happened was that it gradually transformed into a ‘whatever’. Curiosity is love. As love waned, cleaning too became scarce and the house became dirty. (Ogawa 1997:231)

Communitas and institutionalization

So the problem is that communitas is unstable and ephemeral. Often it is dangerous. It cannot be made into the foundation of a stable alternative social order. This suggests that a development back towards some form of institutionalization is necessary.

Take sound-demos as an example. In an early report on sound demos in Japan - at the time of the anti-war movement in 2003 - Oda Masanori writes that what made them different from other demonstrations was not just the music and the dancing. It was also a matter of attitude, of not trying to ingratiate oneself with the police or the authorities, of not "doing as one was told". There was an exciting feeling of risk, of ”not knowing what will happen”. The sound-demos, he summarizes, tried to transform the harmless “amusement park” of Tokyo once again into a harappa (field, wild moor, wasteland) (Oda et al 2005:121).

However, organizers of sound-demos soon recognized the need for a minimum of discipline in order to escape police repression. Thus Noiz, one of the organizers of a demonstration at the time of the G8 summit in Hokkaido in 2008, criticizes the participants for having tried to confront the G8 ruling elites with the ideal of muen or the liberation from social bonds alone, while forgetting about the need for social bonds between comrades. The only bonds we reject are the vertical ones, he writes, but we should still strive to preserve horizontal ones. “That is precisely the logic of a group of comrades, i.e. the manifestation of a mutual relation (en). The only relation we reject is the vertical ones pervaded by domination; vertical relations of mutuality, by contrast, should be pursued.” (noiz 2008:61).

We recognize here the problem of no-man's-land: will it lead to a shared "common" or to war?  Let me state here, however, that I don’t believe institutionalization to be the only possible answer to the problem of the evanescence of communitas.

Of course, I fully appreciate the value of institutions that help preserve forms of togetherness in the most egalitarian form possible. Wherever we look at the panorama of historical models for non-state societies or non-state mediated human interrelatedness we discover that it is only thanks to some form of institutionalization that they have been able to subsist: the Ainu society, the ikki federations of medieval Japan, the Kula ring or the intricate songlines of Australia, the Icelandic Thingvellir which – like some contemporary international court or organ of the United Nations – mediated between basically independent local powerholders, the Iroquois league, village democracies, certain monastic communities, or contemporary anarchist spokescouncils. More close at hand, perhaps, we have examples from our own experience of friendship, siblinghood, clubs, circles, networks and so on. Common to all these examples is that they have achieved a measure of stability because of an institutional framework: either an explicit (rules, laws etc) or an implicit (custom, habit, tradition) one. It is clear, then, that if at least something of the egalitarian siblinghood is to survive, there is a need to develop stable institutional structures that might guarantee as much of equality and openness as possible, and prevent the emergence of hierarchies, walls, and war.

However, there is also a danger in relying too much on institutional safeguards. We can look at Karatani Kôjin’s “associationism”, which is an attempt to create an anarchist society based not on the fleeting sense of communitas but on institutional mechanisms. A central project in NAM, or the “New Associationist Movement”, which he founded in 2000, was the establishment of a LETS, or Local Economic Trading System, that would function both as a safety net for those who had dropped out of capitalist competition and as an alternative economic system that would gradually replace capitalism. Not only was interaction in NAM premised on an intricate system of rules meant to prevent closure and the centralization of power, it was even explicitly modeled on the impersonal system of exchange of the market, i.e. a rule-governed form of intercourse which Karatani believed would be able to function even in the absence of any shared solidarity or sense of common purpose among the members. His reluctance to rely on communitas is evident not only in his distrust of “romantic protest” but also in his theoretically central idea of “transcritical space” as a space of Verkehr or intercourse modeled on the market or on associations that were themselves described as market-like in their impersonality (Karatani 2003).

It is easy to see the imprint of liberal ideas of power sharing and checks and balances in Karatani’s conception of social movements. While such ideas are important, market-like exchange cannot be a model of pure “exteriority” – as Karatani tends to portray it – since it is rule-governed, i.e. based on a shared institutional framework. To be concise: the market is not a no-man’s-land (more on this in Cassegard 2007b, 2008).

NAM, as some readers may recall, was dissolved in 2003 – partly because of problems in getting the LETS started and partly because of inner tension and conflicts. I bring this up as a reminder that institutionalization is no guarantee of sustainability. Kinji House may have failed partly because it relied too much on communitas. NAM failed, perhaps partly because of its top-heavy reliance on an institutional framework.

I have already stated that institutionalization alone is not the answer. There is in fact an alternative way in which the egalitarianism and openness of communitas can be preserved. It consists in creating a society in which communitas is easily formed. In that way, even if each instance of communitas is short-lived, new ones will quickly arise to take its place. The advantage of such an arrangement would be that society as a whole becomes porous and more responsive to people's desires. Power and order will never have the time to appear monolithic or oppressive, and inhabitants will feel empowered.

The difference to the strategy of creating durable egalitarian or anarchist institutions is that here the call is for society as such to make more room for non-institutionalized arenas. To use a simile, the call is not for the bubbles or the foam to harden in order to become more stable, but for the water to boil. Communitas needn't be durable: it should be consumed, like a log in a fire, like a rain drop.

The two strategies are not mutually exclusive. The thing is that a society with a lot of bubble is also one in which good institutions are most likely to develop.

In short, we need both institutions and communitas. Institutions are sails. They need wind. Remember that breeze I was talking about?

References (to both part 1 and 2)

Agamben, Giorgio (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Cassegard, Carl (2007a) Shock and Naturalization in Contemporary Japanese Literature, Folkestone: Global Oriental.

Cassegard, Carl (2007b) “Exteriority and Transcritique: Karatani Kôjin and the Impact of the 90’s”, pp 1-18, Japanese Studies 27:1, May.

Cassegard, Carl (2008) “From Withdrawal to Resistance: The Rhetoric of Exit from Yoshimoto Takaaki to Karatani Kojin”, Japan Focus: The Asia-Pacific Journal, March 4.

Graeber, David (2009) Direct Action: An Ethnography, Oakland: AK Press.

Hardt, Michael & Negri, Antonio (2009) Commonwealth, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Hobbes, Thomas ([1651]) Leviathan, The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, Leopold Wilson Foundation.

Kantorowitz, Ernest H. (1997) The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Karatani, Kôjin (2003) Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, Cambridge, Mass. & London, England: The MIT Press.

Noiz (2008) “Muen no tôki” (Uprisings of muen), pp 43-65, Anakizumu No. 11.

Oda, Masanori et al (2005) “Tôkyô saundo demo kaigi” (Meeting about the Tokyo sound demonstrations), pp 118-143, in De Musik Inter (ed) Oto no chikara: ‘Sutorîto’ senkyohen, Tokyo: Imupakuto shuppankai.

Ogawa, Kyôhei (1997) “Hiroba to akichi: Bonboyâju to Kinji no tochû hôkoku” (Square and no-man’s-land: halfway report from the bon voyage to Kinji), pp 225-235, Gendai Shisô 25:5.

Schmitt, Carl (2005) Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Turner, Victor (1992) From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, New York: PAJ Publications.

Turner, Victor (2007) The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, New Brunswick & London: Aldine Transaction.

Vaneigem, Raoul (2001) The Revolution of Everyday Life, London: Rebel Press.

Viénet, René (1992) Enragés and Situationists in the Occupation Movement, France, May ’68, New York: Autonomedia, London: Rebel Press.

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