The Kinetics of Our Discontent by Mehmet Dosemeci
Why do we think of social struggles as movements? What is being put into motion and where is it going? Has struggle been thought and practiced otherwise? Not as movement but as interruption, arrest, stasis? If so, what are struggles trying to stop? In asking these questions, I want to try to think about social struggles kinetically: to analyze struggle through the politics of motion and its disruption.
James Baldwin once wrote that, ‘We must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.’ Kinetic analysis begins by questioning the axiomatic association academics and activists alike have made between modern social struggles and the category of movement. More than semantics, the term social movement is filled with assumptions inherited from early strains of European liberalism: of a connection between freedom, progress and mobility and of a largely static and intractable social order that movements struggle against.
These assumptions have enjoyed a long theoretical afterlife; from underlying theories of social democracy and anti-colonialism, to more recent post-Marxist and post-structural concepts such as slippage, hybridity, rhizomatic evasion, carnival, and nomadism. As with liberalism, all these conceptions perceived the social order as fixed, arresting, and identarian, and sought freedom through putting things into motion.
There is also a long history of the suppression of human mobility in support of these claims. From institutionalized serfdom and slavery to the vagrancy and black codes following their abolition; from internal passports to mass incarceration; metropolitan policing to colonial governance; psychiatric wards to refugee camps, there is no denying that the disciplinary power of the state brought a vast array of ‘anti-nomadic techniques’ to the management of human bodies. As James C. Scott powerfully demonstrated, ‘The state has always seemed to be the enemy of people who move around.’
Yet, this conception of the state and social order – one requisite to the understanding of social struggle as social movement – tells a one-dimensional and increasingly outdated story. Against these readings, there exists a parallel tradition of political thought that has understood the modern social order to be itself a field in permanent flux and motion. I argue that within this imaginary of the compulsion to move, where all that is solid melts into air, a politics of disruption became theorizable for the first time.
Beginning with Marx, a long line of scholars have traced the 18th century formation of what I call the ‘Regime of Movement’: a social order that derived profit from expanding the reach and flow of goods, credit, and bodies across the transatlantic world. They have described – in harrowing detail – the violence and coercion that accompanied this movement: the coercion neccesary to create regional, national and international markets for goods, and the mobile, docile, labour force required to supply, connect and protect them. Also, the expropriation of the uterus and its reconfiguration into the first factory; the dispossession, indentured servitude, criminalization, and impressment of the English and Irish peasantry; the kidnapping and commodification of the population of one continent and the displacement and genocide of those on two others.
Other scholars have pointed out how this regime of movement brought about a corresponding shift in the role of the state; a new policing function which Rancière saw encapsulated in the phrase “Move along! There is nothing to see here.” In contrast to the Althussarian police who interpelated passersby with the now famous arresting injunction, “Hey you there! Stop!”, for Rancière, the function of the state apparatus was to guarantee the constant circulation of people, goods, and services: “The police say there is nothing to see, nothing happening, nothing to be done but to keep moving, circulating; they say that the space of circulation is nothing but the space of circulation.” Their function, as Deleuze and Guattari have argued, is “to ensure that all freely moving bodies…become the relative characteristic of a ‘moved body’ going from one point to another in a striated space.”
It’s with this framing that I want to talk about disruption as a political strategy deployed by countless social struggles who sought space, voice, and emancipation not through movement but through its interruption. For this blog I’ve picked the barricade, a disruptive form whose history stretches over half a millennium, making it one of the few tactics of popular struggle that bridge the pre-modern, modern, and post-modern eras of social struggle.
As a structure, the barricade’s primary aim was to disrupt the orderly movement of soldiers into the city. Troops were forced to halt before the barricade, not only slowing their advance, but more importantly, opening up the possibility of fraternization: a moment created by pause, when the “rebels, agitators, plunderers, levelers, and scum of society” encountered by the troops could suddenly morph into “a manifestation of the people.” The barricade created a space of contact where, as Trotsky once remarked, “troops could hear, perhaps for the first time, the workers’ conscience, their fraternal appeal.”
But the barricade’s disruptive power was not just limited to troops. Even the very act of building a barricade was disruptive. The commandeering of carts, carriages, wheelbarrows and wagons, the uplifting of paving stones, the door-to-door requests for arms and goods made barricades collective construction projects that tore down extant relations of property (of tenancies, of ownership) and instituted their own unique economy – converting the city into a continuous field of appropriated urban matter. This disruption of urban space was particularly significant for the workers’ struggle since the construction of barricades mimicked and prefigured, in microcosm, the very transition from private to communal property relations the working-class insurrection sought to bring about.
Once built, the barricade forced everyone – soldiers, supporters, and above all neutral bystanders – to take a stand, to define their relation to the barricade and through it, the insurrectionary situation. Passersby were each invited to contribute a paver. By its very presence, the barricade became a means of engaging the disengaged, of converting observers into participants. In this sense, its function was akin to the original meaning of resistance, whose etymology, from the Latin stare and Greek stasis, meant to come to a stand or to cause to stand. By interrupting the normal flows of the city, the barricade served as a central magnet, gathering everyone around it. Neighbours would bring food or drink, linger to chat, turning the barricades into impromptu places of assembly and discussion.
The barricade is of course just one among a countless set of disruptive strategies that have sought emancipation not in movement, but through its interruption: 18th century food and impressment riots, slave ship mutinies and piracy, the working-class use of sabotage, propaganda of the deed, and the mass strike; not to mention the long history of occupation, from squats to universities, factories to the public squares of 2011. In all these cases, the arrest of movement, the disruption of the normalized flows of the urban environment reconfigured what there was to do there, what there was to hear, see, and to name – creating distinct spaces for “politics” to take place.
These disruptive practices stand in sharp contrast to struggles oriented around movement (marches, manifestations, flash-mobs, demonstrations). A logic of collection and dispersal has more and more come to define how the latter is practiced. Aggrieved humans momentarily gather, coalesce around some site or issue, then, all too predictably, re-atomize into their daily routines and routes. Besides the obvious point that these tactics have done very little to change the policies, much less the course, of contemporary society, they are kinetically compatible even complicit with – and thus cannot fundamentally challenge – both the ceaseless circulation that defines the urban environment, but also the logic of investment and withdrawal of international capital itself.
Mehmet Döşemeci, PhD in History (Columbia University) is an Associate Professor of History at Bucknell University (USA) with research interests in the fields of modern Atlantic, European and Middle Eastern history, political theory, labour, feminism, and the New Left. His current book project (in contract with Verso) examines the history of disruption in the modern Atlantic world. He has also created and maintains a website, disruptnow.org, a collection of contemporary and historical documents of global disruption.