The supposed invasion of the being by the having has been a recurrent theme throughout the history of Western civilization. Long before the advent of capitalism, one’s material possessions and social status in the community were already deeply intertwined. It was not by accident that the mention of a king in the pages of the Iliad was often followed by the endless list of his possessions, as if the number of sheep and pigs one possessed helped in some way to express the personality of the individual.
As time went by, the crass simplicity of the lists of the Iliad, turned into a more sophisticated catalogue of belongings. As already noted by Suetonius, first, and by Sallust later, at the time of the Roman empire fashion had already entered the equation of material wealth and social subjectivity. Above a certain threshold of wealth, It wasn’t just the sheer amount ofstuff that one owned that was used to define his (rarely her) social status, but it was what he owned. His possessions did not simply have to be opulent and abundant – they also had to be filtered by the whims of fashion.
This trend proved unstoppable even during the so-called dark ages, and when private wealth could not keep pace with a minimum level of sophistication, the Church stepped in by prodigally investing in the assertion of its hegemony over fashion. If, out of laziness, we did not want to look back to those remote times for proof, we would simply have to look at the obsession for fashionable opulence of the current Pope, Benedictus XVI, rightly considered by many as the reincarnation of a medieval Pope in present times.
The marriage of material wealth and social subjectivity (or social status) did not come without opponents. Still in medieval times, several pauperist movements firmly raised their voices and lives against it. Revealingly, it was the son of a fabric merchant, the young to-be saint Francis of Assisi, among the first to declare a renunciation of all his worldly possessions by taking off his expensive and fashionable clothes in front of a public assembly.
Under a political perspective, early pauperism identified the origin of inequality in the excessive emphasis put by society on material wealth. Through a complete abstinence from possession – or so they thought – humans would have been able to build on earth the preconditions for a harmonious coexistence with each other, the rest of Creation and the Divine.
The antagonism between material wealth and pauperism has remained as a constant refrain throughout modernity, sometimes disguised under the pretenses of the arts (as with the French Boheme) or of radical politics (as with mystical anarchism and, later, primitivism). At the basis of this antagonism was the attention, either positive or negative, on stuffas a measure and a means for the establishment of one’s status within society. To have and have not, above all else, has been the crucial question running through the heart of Western civilization.
This obsession with stuff has been with us until very recently, and still exists today in many populist discourses, on the right as well as on the left of the political spectrum. Both in the discourse of austerity – ‘we have been living above our means’ – and in that of those who oppose it – ‘we suffer for the greed of the few’ – the focus remains on material wealth as the main object of contention and, consequently, of power.
Although material wealth undeniably remains an important feature in a capitalist society, some new voices have recently started to notice contemporary capitalism’s shift away from it. In an age in which power focuses on the control over life rather than on material resources – thus becoming bio-power – and in which the economy finds its new horizon in the exploitation of life and affects – thus becoming bio-economics – the core of society’s functioning necessarily moves away from the archaic mania for stuff.
Once again, we can look at fashion to understand to what point the relationship between material wealth and social status has progressively deteriorated. Against the popular belief that skinny models are for times of plenty and plump ladies for those of scarcity, the craze for ‘minimal living’ has only really exploded worldwide since the beginning of the financial crisis of 2008. Far from promoting pauperism in any way, the ‘minimal living’ movement perfectly fits within contemporary capitalism while advocating the uselessness of stuff. As the vanguard of fashion, ‘minimal living’ simply expresses the fading importance of material wealth as a means to defining social status in today’s society and to constructing contemporary subjectivities.
This shift had its early expression in the 1990s, with the discourse around identity and identity politics. According to it, it was not the verb, but the noun that really mattered in defining ‘who you are’. This discourse quickly progressed into a deeper conception of the very idea of identity, understood as innately performative. In other words, the subject – the who– is not to be understood in an essentialist way, as something that already is in itself, but rather as a subject constantly in-the-making, defined at any given moment by its performance of one or another identity. For example, one cannot say ‘to be a woman’, but rather ‘to perform as a woman’.
The focus on performance, typical of later identity politics, hints at the new direction taken by contemporary capitalism and life, while at the same time clouding it with the remnants of typically 20th century categorizations. If identities are still stuck in the slow catalogue of social categories – woman, homosexual, vegetarian, etc – today’s social functioning seems to have moved further, towards the hyper-speed of fashion and trends. Performance no longer allows the individual to enter a relatively stable social category such as an identity, but it rather forces him/her to continue moving, from performance to performance, along an ever-changing flow.
Admittedly, performance is too heavy a word to describe the continuous, frantic acting of the individual within contemporary society, in his/her quest for social status and recognition. Moreover, the idea of performance somehow implies a willful intention before the act and awareness throughout it. With the subsuming of even the deepest layers of life by contemporary capitalism, and the consequent transformation of all acts into econmically productive performances, the time has come to abandon this word and to resort, instead, to the simple definition of doing, for life and action in today’s society.
After the decline of material wealth as a measure of social status, and due to the movement of capitalism towards the realm of the bios, it is the doing and no longer the stuff that really counts. If in the past one could be socially defined by what s/he had, now the same happens with what s/he does. Doing, that is, actively taking part in contemporary life, is the way through which one expresses and understand his/her worthiness, both in the eyes of society and in his/her own.
We are at a strange conjunction in the development of doing as a fundamental social measure. These are both the early stages of primitive accumulation of doing – implying a particular attention to the quantitative over the qualitative – and the times of a social functioning which only exists within the hyperspeed of fashion – privileging, on the opposite, the fragmentation of the qualitative over quantitative stockpiling. This coexistence of diverging focuses is resolved in the tacitly accepted existence of a minimum quantitative threshold of doing, above which the qualitative hyperspeed of fashion can take place, and below which one is not even allowed to enter the social game.
Doing, the imperative of action, is at the heart of social functioning in the current times of crisis and bio-capitalism. It is under the diktat of doing that individuals are compelled to continue working and producing, in an epoch plagued by crisis of overproduction, and to continue consuming, in a moment in which the shadow of poverty spreads its wings above the former First World. Similarly to the senseless hoarding of golden treasures in pestilence-ridden medieval Europe, it is the greed for doing which motivates the dance of a headless chicken of present-day Western individuals. Those who don’t do, those who are inactive, simply lack the necessary requisites to be legitimate members of contemporary society. And even if they do, only those who do ‘the right things’ – as it happened in the past in reference to having the right things – can consider themselves to be fully integrated in the world in which they live.
To Do Not
As it happened during the previous regime of having, the world of doing also has its enemies. They may not yet have found their representatives in formally organized orders such as the Franciscans of the 13th century, but are probably more numerous and widespread than their ancient pauperist equivalents. In the age of action, this type of frontal opposition no longer happens through the abandonment of one’s material belonging, but through the more or less conscious renunciation of one’s role as a doing agent. Depression is the new, instinctive form of pauperism.
Growing from the early warnings of punk – which still maintained a frenzied, though nihilist, vitality – depression pushes the refusal of the regime of doing to the extreme. As if overwhelmed by what they saw beyond the veil of action, the depressed person makes his/her body utterly unavailable to any type of employment. Having refused the compulsory union of life and socially regulated action, the depressed person purges his/her body of any vitality and abandons it to the automatic reproduction of the vital functions, devoid of any productive ambitions. The depressed body presents itself as the ultimate opposition to the regime of doing, like the naked body of the pauperist was the specular opposition of the paradigm of having.
Despite its diffusion throughout the West, depression only exists, today, as an individual and solitary form of opposition. But there is no shortage of early signs of its possible transformation into a collective opposition, such as the numerous suicide pacts that have recently shocked Japan, or the mass suicides that regularly salute the passing of supposedly apocalyptic dates in the American calendar. It is not unreasonable to envisage the appearance of organized forms of depression, in an age in which the stigma associated with not doing extends to the growing legion of the unemployed, similarly to the happy marriage of mass impoverishment in Medieval Europe and the rise of pauperist movements.
The opposition presented by depression comes at a cost. By refusing action, the depressed person loses his/her grip on their own life, reducing their existence to a painful and disquieted version of the life of plants. Although naturally destructive for the current social order – which it refuses in its entirety – depression is equally destructive for those who fall (or enter) into it. Differently from religious pauperism, depression does without the horizon and comfort provided by the imagination of another, superior wealth (another, superior action) awaiting us in the ‘life to come’. In fact, depression implies the abandonment of the very category of ‘belief’, which is at the core not only of the traditional religious feeling, but also of the blind acceptance of social norms which is expected from the socialized and normalized individual.
However, this promising and truly atheist approach comes without an equivalent affirmation of one’s earthly existence as a source of pleasure and wonder. Depression presents itself as a purely negative type of opposition, which could find its historical metaphor in the mass suicide performed by the defeated Japanese troops on the island of Okinawa in 1945. Depression presents an opposition which escapes the logic of conflict, because it is unable to imagine the possibility of victory – or, more precisely, of a victory worth achieving.
To Do Without
Between the armies of compulsory doing and of depression, a space still exists, in which it is possible to imagine action as autonomous from the bio-economics of exploitation and from the fatal whirling of living death. In order to start exploring this other space, we can begin by observing the common ground shared by those two battling armies.
Despite their endless fight – only superficially mitigated by capitalism’s attempts to commercialise depression, or by the attempts of the depressed to disguise themselves as socially functioning individuals – both sides share the same focus ondoing as a type of action which is submitted to and aimed at the process of social subjectivation. In the perception of both, action does not exist as unrelated to the acquisition, maintenance or loss of even the most basic forms social status.
Both of them also share the same perception of today’s society as the only plane of existence for contemporary life – what Mark Fisher pointedly described as ‘capitalist realism’. In the eyes of the workaholic as in those of the depressed, the triumph of bio-power and bio-economics is a matter of fact without alternative. In this regard, today’s depression epidemic resembles the tsunami of heroin addiction that plagued the defeated hoards of utopian communists, anarchists and situationists during capitalism’s reconquista of the West in the late 1970s. A retreat into nothingness, which is nothing but the admission of an irredeemable defeat.
In order to escape the paralysis of this defeat, and to imagine a new position of action and life which is capable of escaping both exploitation and depression, we must resort to the most dangerous tool available for atheist revolutionaries: a leap of faith. Though as essentially ungrounded as any act of faith, faith in victory is the precondition for any attempt to reclaim one’s action for oneself and to develop one’s life as one sees fit. Faith, in this sense, is not the vow of obedience to a superior being, but it is the brave and necessary gamble on the very possibility of living freely on one’s own terms and in free association with equally self-willed individuals. It is not a faith in oneself as such – or in one’s ‘might’ as a free individual – but rather in oneself as a possibility. Differently from the vulgate of most contemporary self-help schools, the object of this faith is not in the possibility of one’s happiness or realization, but of one’s quest for it. Under an existential revolutionary perspective, in fact, victory is never to be understood as a static moment of full-bellied satisfaction, but as the continuous realization of the state in which autonomous choice and development are possible.
Moving towards this victory – which we could better define as a becoming-victory – we are still faced with the dilemma of whether or not action – doing – can be at all part of our practice. Clearly, our dealing with the realm of action requires a much more prudent approach than the naive enthusiasm of so-called activists. Not everything we do in the name of emancipation will or can lead to our emancipation. In fact, nothing we will ever do in the name of anything will ever lead to our emancipation as free willed and autonomous individuals. Even the faith in victory must be kept hidden in our hearts, secret even to ourselves, if we want to avoid an idealized Victory becoming the aim – and the ruler – of our fight.We are the aim of our fight. We are the only aim of any revolution worth enacting. It is in our own interest that we must reinterpret action as a tool for emancipation.
As early as the 6th century BC, the taoist philosopher Laozi already started to see this space between action and inaction, between the two battling grounds which myopic Western thought only imagined could be bridged by means of the dialectics.
Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing,
acting with no expectations,
leading and not trying to control:
this is the supreme virtue.
In the very structure of those few verses, I believe, we can find the key to unlock our imagination of liberated and emancipatory action. In particular, we should look at Laozi’s use of negation. ‘Without’, ‘with no’, ‘and not’ are the filters which allow both the ancient paradigm of having and the new one of doing to become docile tools in our hands, rather than overpowering abstractions above our heads.
In Laozi’s verses, it is the renunciation of possession that clears having from its poisonous aspects and turns it into a real possibility. Having thus becomes a type of interaction with objects which is not aimed at their capture, but at their use. This other type of having is grounded on the awareness of the senselessness of human desires of treating the world around them and their own life as resources which can be made captive, that can be surrounded by fences and made ‘private’ – both in the sense of being deprived of their public aspect and in that of ideally depriving their possessor of his/her human fragility, sublimated in the immortal ties of the contractual bond of property. Through the addition of a ‘without’, having is thus reclaimed as a human necessity and possibility, cleansed of its often pathological effects on the mind of those who approach it. By ‘having without possessing’, we are finally able to have having, to domesticate it, to defeat its attempts to dominate us.
The same happens with action. By removing expectations from action, we manage to defuse the very device through whichdoing escapes our hands and colonizes our heads. Doing thus turns into a non-finalized type of action, which perfectly fits within the horizon of a life liberated from meta-narratives, from the finalities of History, Progress and Civilization.
Even victory, as I briefly noted above, enters the space between action and non-action as a faith rather than an aim. Far from directing our efforts, faith in victory only functions as a tactic to unblock our will to struggle for individual and collective self-determination, and to enable our full investment in the struggle. Furthermore, victory, understood asbecoming-victory, ceases to function as an ever-fading target, turning instead into a constitutive part of the struggle. More precisely, becoming-victory constitutes the method our struggle, resembling in part the way in which revolutionary tension becomes daily practice in so-called prefigurative politics. However, the emphasis on the ‘with no’ between action and expectation cleanses doing even of its pre-figurative element. Without expectation, there can be no future time in which we can hope to achieve our aims, nor a spectacular present in which to convert our fantasies into mere representations. The time of doing without is the time of now.
In this time in which we struggle, in which we do without, the fourth line of Laozi’s quoted stanza becomes a practical reality. ‘Leading and not trying to control’ perfectly describes an emancipated individual’s approach towards him/herself. ‘Leading’ differentiates itself from the passive approach of the depressed – sucked into his/her own life – as well as from the cart-driver attitude of the capitalist doer, who pushes his life forward along the dirt roads of exploitation and self-exploitation. By doing without, an individual applies his/her will and desires to his/her life, while constantly reminding him/herself of the dangers of being possessed by the obsession of finalised action and, consequently, of control. A liberated life is not the total dictatorship of an iron will, nor the hippy-esque state of ‘total freedom’ of a spastic muscle. It is the state in which an individual, equipped only with will and faith in becoming-victory, faces his/her own limits and his/her own necessities and desires. It is a difficult state, in which no gods or masters are available for the tempting shortcuts of abdication and surrender. It is a state of liberation which does not call for liberators, a frightening state which does not demand reassurance. It is a space called adventure, in which the prize is adventure itself. Always less than the infinity of our dreams. And infinitely more than either capitalism or depression will ever be able to offer.