03 03 08

Exit, Radical Culture and the Re-Composition of Struggle

Gene Ray

This is the text of a talk given at the symposium “Sustainability and Contemporary Art: Exit or Activism?”, Central European University, Budapest, 29 February 2008.

I gather that my conception of “exit” may be somewhat different from the one formulated in the announcement of this symposium, so I need to begin by reposing the problem.  Exit, as I’m trying to think and understand it, is not at all a withdrawal from political activity and struggle.  So for me it’s not a choice between “relentless activism through contemporary art” on the one hand and, on the other, exit as a “tactical withdrawal” into inactivity, in order to rest or gather energy for some eventual return to activism. 
If there is a renewed interest in this question of exit today, this interest was largely generated by Paolo Virno’s book A Grammar of the Multitude.[1]  There, exit – or “exodus” as he also calls it – is developed within the framework of Italian Autonomist Marxism.  Emerging from the revolutionary struggles of the late 1960s and 70s, this Marxist tradition, most associated today with those around Antonio Negri, remains intently focused on the problem of finding a passage beyond capitalism.  The Italian Autonomist Marxists have been especially involved with the problem of the de-composition of the proletariat as a struggling class under contemporary capitalism, and with the possible lines of class re-composition latent or emergent in new modes of production, namely post-Fordism.  As is well known, Negri and Michael Hardt proposed the category of “the multitude” to analyze changes in the forms and openings of contemporary exploitation.  The multitude is both the object of exploitation and potentially the collective subject of struggle under post-Fordist production.  In this context, exit or exodus is Virno’s name for a process by which the multitude could empower itself outside the structures of state and capitalist power.  It could do so, he argues, by constructing networks of counter-institutions, within which skills can be shared, common goals developed and new forms of practice and struggle invented. 
Virno doesn’t claim that such an exodus is already actualizing itself in any politically decisive way – or that it necessarily will do so.  The multitude is ambivalent and may not choose its own liberation.  He merely shows that the communications networks, increased connectivity, and cooperative virtuosity needed for post-Fordist production are carriers of this revolutionary possibility or potentiality – behind the back, as it were, of capitalist power.  In Hardt and Negri, this empowering counter-production of networks and practices is simply called “democracy.”  And their book Multitude famously opens with the ringing announcement that “The possibility of democracy on a global scale is emerging today for the very first time.”[2]
As Virno poses it, exit is a process of escaping the disempowering constraints of established institutional power, in order to re-compose a collective subject of struggle.  In positive terms, exit would be the inventive production of radical public spheres, eventually linked in a single, global radical public sphere, where the multitude can share its desires and aims, gather its strength and competencies, and develop the critical mass of historical agency.[3]  It would involve, not a withdrawal into inactivity, quietude or passivity, but actually an intensification of organizational activity and inventive practices of struggle.  As I read it, this is nothing less than an attempt to renew a Marxist model and strategy for radical social change in the 21st century.  The substance and details of this attempt can be debated, of course; but let’s recognize what it aims to be.
In this light, the way to pose the problem of exit in the context of contemporary art seems clear.  Exit would be a progressive evacuation from the dominant institutions of the capitalist art system, in order to organize counter-institutions and counter-networks of struggle-oriented radical culture.  It implies the transformation of art as a specialized activity administered by the established institutions into a more generalized radical culture directly linked to the aims and needs of social movements and struggles.  In this sense, exit or exodus would be nothing other than a renewal of the radical social content of the avant-garde tradition in art.  I’ve argued in some recent essays that the artistic avant-gardes established what in political terms can be called an anti-capitalist cultural vector, and Virno’s exit would entail a renewal of this vector.[4]
If we’re going to discuss such an option seriously, we should remember why such an institutional evacuation is thought to be necessary – why, that is, it can’t be enough to develop a politicized art practice within the established art system.  Certainly, individual artists and the work they produce can be critical and politically committed; no one disputes that.  But at this point we inherit a powerful tradition of critical theory that demonstrates compellingly how the art system effectively neutralizes critical and political work and converts art as a whole into a cultural support for the social status quo.  Here, I just indicate in passing three versions of this critique. 
Already in 1937 Herbert Marcuse had demonstrated what he called the “affirmative character” of culture under capitalism.  Art, he argued, constitutes a separated sphere in which the “promise of happiness” can be expressed and experienced virtually.  But this virtual or negative expression is ultimately neutralizing, since it captures and deflects the impulses and energies that otherwise would develop as revolutionary pressure to change real life.  As a whole, then, bourgeois culture is compensatory – it compensates us for the spiritual poverty and social misery of capitalist everyday life, and thereby affirms and stabilizes the existing class system.  Antonio Gramsci has left us another way to analyze the same social process.  For him, art and culture are elements of political hegemony.  Along with other ideological formations and sources of mystifying authority, art contributes to the complex process by which the ruling class secures consent for its rule from the very classes it exploits and dominates.  And more recently, Pierre Bourdieu analyzed the logics of what he calls the “field of cultural production” and concluded that the ultimate function of art as a systematic production of social distinctions is to produce “symbolic legitimation” for capitalist power.
In other words, there are sound political reasons for seeking to escape institutional neutralization and control – to say nothing of institutional exploitation.  There are strong grounds for trying collectively to organize counter-institutions oriented toward struggles for radical social change.  Radical culture, then, is what the forms and practices of art become when they begin to escape the neutralizing administrative control of the art system and to link up to struggles against capitalist power.
While it has great appeal, this notion of exit or exodus obviously raises numerous practical questions.  Exit to... where, exactly – and how?   How are artists to live and pay their rent, if they cut their ties to the institutions and system that feeds them?  Indeed, the same questions must be asked of Virno’s strategy of exit in general:  how are people to eat, while they are busy building a radical public sphere beyond and opposed to state power and capital?
What these questions immediately clarify is that exit cannot be an individual strategy – it cannot be a call for artists to go individually into self-imposed exile from the art institutions.  If exit were no more than that, then it would be a formula for isolation and pointless self-sacrifice.  Exit only makes sense as a collective project, and only becomes viable on a large scale. 
Secondly, it necessarily would have to be grounded in strong social movements.  A counter-production of radical culture only makes sense if there are existing or at least emerging social movements and struggles that need it.  And only when those movements begin to reach critical mass can this radical public sphere begin to offer a really autonomous base for cultural producers and practitioners.  In other words, solutions to the problem of material sustenance – of a certain “sustainability,” if you like – can only become really viable and durable in the context of a major re-composition of class struggle.  Organized movements will support the radical culture they need, when they have become strong enough to do so. 
In the meantime, it perhaps makes more sense to think of exit or exodus as a progressive and selective process of institutional detachment and reorganization.  Obviously, the institutions of the art system are many and varied, and it’s crucial to analyze these differences in power and functions.  Power is concentrated in the dominant museums, biennials, magazines and galleries.  Precisely because they have the power to make or break artistic careers, these institutions are the enforcers of the art system; they enforce the rules and conventions that ensure that art’s affirmative functions continue to operate.  University galleries, theory journals and artist-run cooperatives, by contrast, often function in context as important supports and bases for critical and radical culture.  So any exit has to be selective and informed by a clear analysis of the distributions of power and functions within the art system.
Exit or exodus as a renewal of the avant-garde vector, as a reorganization of the means of producing radical culture, is clearly tied to the fate of radical politics.  It assumes a radical – and not merely a liberal – critique of capitalism.  It assumes moreover that there is no passage beyond capitalism – and no social progress – without a politics of struggle.  And this, in turn, assumes a real critical processing of the history of the twentieth century – including above all the urgent critique of the defeats of anti-capitalist revolution and the historical disasters of so-called “really existing socialism.” 
I’ve written about the violence of capitalist modernity and the world system it produced – the war of all against all enforced by the world market and competition of nation-states.  And I’ve written about the terror of capitalism’s fascist emergency formations.[5]  In this city, no one needs to be reminded of the disastrous one-party police states that corrupted and discredited a Marxist tradition that aimed to emancipate humanity from the relentless logics and antagonisms of capitalism.  While claiming to be authorized by this tradition, these party-states themselves developed into bureaucratic regimes of exploitation and domination enforced by coercion and terror.  There can be no real renewal of radical leftist politics until the reasons for this “labyrinth of pure madness,” as Victor Serge called it, have been thoroughly understood, with open eyes and without apologetics.
“Transition” would seem to be an apt term for grasping this moment in the long curve of history.  I suspect we are now in a transitional moment in the development of leftist political consciousness.  Today, the aims and forms of radical social change are being rethought and discussed under the sign of the “movement of movements.”  We are free now of those so-called Communist states that illegitimately monopolized and mutilated the very language of revolution.  Capitalism, for its part, after indulging in triumphalist “end of history” fantasies, has quickly enough fallen back into disrepute.  The ravages and social misery of neo-liberalism and a permanent “war on terror” now exposed, and with economic crises and ecological disasters looming on the horizon, the contradictions and antagonisms of the capitalist world system are once again plain to see. 
Despite promising beginnings in the World Social Forum and similar regional networks and popular assemblies, the collective critical processing of the last century has not yet gone far or deep enough to clarify the basis for a new global mass movement for radical social change.  My own processing of this history so far convinces me that there is a real, valid and living core to the Marxist tradition, despite the crimes and betrayals committed in its name.  And this living, open core – a set of powerful theoretical and analytical tools and political principles for orienting practice – still offers resources indispensable for any struggle against the structures and institutions of capitalist power.  The lessons of the twentieth century are hard ones, but they do not warrant the conclusion that the capitalist world system is eternal or unassailable.  The twentieth century is no proof that forms of socialism that are both radically democratic and ecologically sane are impossible goals.  I’m afraid I don’t believe in the term “post-socialist.”  That would imply that socialism had actually been achieved somewhere.  I doubt that, even if I don’t dispute at all that today everything must be rethought, reinvented and reorganized in light of experience and the mutations of capitalism itself.  This is a daunting prospect, to be sure, but it is the condition of any social progress worthy of the name.
I don’t expect that exit or exodus will happen in any effective way in the absence of a vigorous, organized and insistently present mass movement.  If such a movement emerges and succeeds in re-composing and reorganizing a process of revolutionary social change, then I am sure that it will be accompanied by a robust cultural exodus and by diversely inventive renewals of the avant-garde vector.  This is exactly what happened in past periods of international revolutionary upsurge – the cycle of 1917 to 1921, as well as that of 1968.  Needless to say, any major re-composition of radical social struggle can only come as a result of real and not merely wished for pressure from below – from a political reactivation of the exploited and dominated global majority.  Obviously, artists alone could never be the agents of such a re-composition – and especially not in situations where the conditions for it still are lacking.  They can at most organize themselves to prepare and agitate for such a re-composition, along with and in support of other movement forces.  For artists who want to participate in and contribute to such a re-composition by visual, communicative and educational means, instead of merely waiting for others to do it and take the risks, the problems touched on here retain all their urgency.  In the context of the movement of movements, artists can and do help to invent new forms of protest and struggle that effectively speak to the moment, from the escrache in Argentina to the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army at protests of the G8 across Europe.
If we pose the problem strategically – and I’ll end with this thought – if, that is, we ask:  what kind of collective activity would most effectively unleash the energy and creative vitality of art in the direction of social struggle, in other words as real pressure for change, then I at least would conclude that exit and the organization of radical culture offer far more promise than political activity carried out within the existing institutional framework of the capitalist art system.

[1] Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, et al. (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2004).

[2] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude (New York, Penguin, 2004), p. xi

[3] I discuss Virno arguments in more detail in “Revolution in the Post-Fordist Revolution?”, Third Text 84 (January 2007)

[4] See “Critical Theory and Critical Art Theory,”; “On the Conditions of Anti-Capitalist Art, Left Curve 31 (2007); and “Avant-Gardes as Anti-Capitalist Vector,” Third Text 86 (May 2007)

[5] “History, Sublime, Terror: Notes on the Politics of Fear,” in Seamus Kealy, ed., Signals in the Dark: Art in the Shadow of War (Toronto: University of Toronto/Blackwood Gallery, 2008)

Gene Ray


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Exit, Radical Culture and the Re-Composition of Struggle Izhod, radikalna kultura in vnovična vzpostavitev boja