In the tv show Power Rangers (the existence of which forced my poor parents to make official regulatory decisions regarding goofily violent programming), each episode’s climactic scene followed a typical formula: the rangers would fight the episode’s villain plus minions on foot as a group, but when the villain would inevitably grow in size, the rangers would form the Megazord, a giant humanoid robot made of smaller giant robot Zords. With all the rangers in the control-head, the two would battle on a skyscraper scale. When the Megazord gets stuck in a corner, it draws its giant robot sword and saves what’s left of the metropolis.
The Megazord is a microcosmic form of the general will, in which the rangers come together to form a single hand capable of wielding the sword. This movement is analogous to the formation of the civil state (personified as the Megazord avant la lettre leviathan) out of the crisis-state of nature in Hobbes, the abstraction of many into a unity with the collective strength to hold evil at bay.
What, then, to make of Wisconsin?
Faced with the near-certain passage of a bill depriving state workers (with the exception of police officers *cough*) the right to collectively bargain for anything other than pay, rank-and-file members along with supporters have swarmed upon the capitol building in Madison. In the State Senate, where Republicans hold a slimmer majority than in the Assembly, Democratic have fled for a hotel in Illinois, depriving the chamber of quorum.** Texas Democrats used the same tactic a few years ago to fight a partisan redistricting bill, but I think the instance in Madison is more interesting for a number of reasons. What we see in Wisconsin is the tactical suspension of representation in the face of the governor’s declared state of exception. A large number of Democrats in Wisconsin have, in practice, recalled their delegates to the State Senate, appearing in person instead. This is the reverse Megazord: when crisis hits, the abstracted will dissolves into its constituent parts. The representatives flee the state and are replaced by the hordes they represent. An irony of the situation is that the protesters are there en masse to protect their right to be collectively represented.
Demonstrator signs and reports from an organizer friend on the inside indicate Egypt has been on the lips of protesters frequently, and I see some compositional similarities between the invasion and overnight occupation of the Capitol and revolutionary subjects in the Maghreb. The unions no doubt brought their members out, but the organization has ceased to act as a mediating buffer between the workers and their government. Unions and parties performed a similar function in Egypt, as social networks but not as leviathans. Look at the variety of sign messaging in Madison, everything from union pride to critiques of the division of wealth to a plea for hemp legalization; despite the color coordination, Madison isn’t swarmed by the disciplined trade-union militias of yore. The power of the workers collected in their representatives – either union or state – is demonstrably less than the bodily power of the workers and supporters. What the last-ditch demonstrations show is that worker collective bargaining through representatives is no longer strong enough to protect itself. High unemployment and an extended sequence of compromises has left the official labor movement without enough bargaining power to defend its ability to bargain.
Unions developed in response to organization of labor by the industrial factory, an organization that’s gone:
“Classical industrial labor and specifically the organized form of the Fordist factory had no relation with pleasure. It had no relation with communication either: communication was actually thwarted, fragmented and obstructed as long as workers were active in front of the assembly line . . . Therefore industrial workers found a place for socialization in subversive working communities, political organizations or unions where members members organized against capital. Workers’ communism became the main form of good life and of conscious organization for the class that capital forced (and still forces) to live a great part of its existence in inhuman conditions . . . There is no more workers’ communism, since workers no longer belong to a community.” – Franco Berardi, The Soul At Work
The age of cognitive labor is post-Megazord.
A retreat from the square in order to form coalitions and an institutional apparatus for the long haul hasn’t been strategic in Egypt or Madison. Media reports out of Wisconsin have expressed surprise so far that the crowds have kept growing, but that’s what’s supposed to happen in an occupation. Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber writes about his 14 year old daughter testifying before the assembly at 5:20 a.m. after staying overnight, and makes it sound like a party, a really good party. My organizer friend tweets “Occupation has become the new normal at the #WI Capitol,” where protest has become a carnival. This celebratory element is only one part of why Mehdi Belhaj Kacem called Egypt the “première révolution situationniste de l’Histoire.” The situation in both cases is one of (in the terms of Paolo Virno) “normality without norm.” He writes in Multitude: Between Innovation And Negation: “[T]he state of exception, far from resembling an unformed void, is the occasion in which the essential web of human life earns an unexpected importance. Or better: it is the occasion in which the warp of human life gains unexpected prominence. The suspension of the norm permits the surfacing of normality of practices, customs, relationships, inclinations, conflicts.”
Virno cites the multitude as the force that pushes back against the state of exception; if the juridical apparatus isn’t going to play by its own rules, then neither will the people. The suspension of “regular” law as justified by crisis – as Egypt was under for years and Governor Walker’s withdrawal of the state’s traditional relationship with the official labor movement for emergency budgetary reasons constitutes - is a tool for the state’s use against traditional organizing models like unions and parties. The state can quash organizations and subject them to emergency restrictions in the name of security; the state can refuse their premises. But by emerging as a multitude, the state must confront the dissidents at the bodily level – as we’ve seen in Bahrain and Libya. As if we needed to ask why Governor Walker protected the police union.
Innovation and creativity, essential human capacities that we use mostly for our bosses these days, see their expression in the linguistic games on occupation signs and the ad hoc kindergartens and sleeping barracks. Tahrir Square has emerged as more than just a site of glorious antagonistic collision; for a portion of Egyptian revolutionaries, it has become a model of society. As Mahmoud Salem (the blogger Sandmonkey) tweeted “What if we create a democracy model similar to Tahrir, based on social engagment & collaboration without forcing anything on anyone?” These spaces are sites of self-valorized labor, innovation by and for each other. In the preceding decades, the corporate state didn’t blink as common space disappeared, while the general intellect has been so incorporated into the circuits of capital that perspective employers want to know how many “friends” applicants have. By attempting the dual move of suppressing common bonds that are inconvenient for profit and cultivating profitable “social networks,” capital may have mixed itself a lethal dose. For governments and bosses, the biggest worry should be the hijacking and appropriation of the affective networks they’ve developed. Twitter doesn’t exist as a tool of liberation, it exists to link people as employees and consumers, so that we can constantly advertise to our friends and use the index of our personal relationships as an extension of our employers’ mailing lists. When the state possesses an “off” switch, it’s clear to whom these technologies belong. But revolutions always seize roads. The market attempts to construct a cognitive hive, but bees are unpredictable.
So what can the Democrats do? Stay gone. What can the official labor movement do? Order pizzas. When strike funds run low, sell your representative’s office furniture. No student is getting a better education than those in Madison, lined up should-to-shoulder with their teachers. No workers are getting better representation than the workers in Madison who stand for themselves and each other.
And if this doesn’t scare congressional Republicans into avoiding a federal government shutdown at all costs, then we’re headed for what could be a very good year.
*Which made some of us as children wonder why the rangers insisted on being knocked around for a bit before remembering about that big sword that seems to make them invincible.
**No one check me on this, but doesn’t there have to be a quorum call for quorum to matter? That is, if the Dems don’t leave one behind, can’t the Republicans, with enough sinister party discipline, simply pass the bill without calling for a quorum call? Although it seems likely at least one Republican could be shamed into it.