This text was first written in May-June 2020 and re-edited in May 2021.
Before the virus there was tear gas. Before tear gas there was flaming trash.
I finished editing Kink Retrograde a couple of weeks before October 17th, 2019, which is the date now marked as the start of the Lebanese uprising. Certain indicators had pointed towards a disruption of the banal misery that Beirut had sunken into, but there wasn’t a way to preempt the scale of the events. There had been floating news about an impending economic collapse, but if we had learned anything from the waste revolts of 2015, it was that the protests may be too few and far between, too benign, the state repression just forceful enough, and that all might boil over soon after. Lebanon had continued to be praised for its resilience by supranational entities as the war machine marched forward in neighboring Syria and the Assad regime rained chlorine and sulfur on civilians. Between 2015 and 2019, haphazard dumping and burning of garbage in every other neighborhood, increased contamination of bodies of water, and proposals for a nation-wide network of incinerators were normalized in the mind of any mildly attentive dweller of the Lebanese Republic. The teargas seemed to have been borne to no political avail. Later, I bade farewell to my mother after months spent in cancer ward waiting rooms. At the end of this stretch of time, all that was on my mind was the impossibility of sensing the molecular violence inflicted on citizens and other inhabitants of specific geographies.
There was indeed no way of predicting the uprising; no clairvoyant, astrologers, or model simulation had provided a heads-up. Some weeks into the uprising, some memes made the perverse joke that teargas itself was addictive and the joke felt like it contained within it some degree of kink.
If what I can glean of the almost impenetrable writing of Pierre Klossowski’s Living Currency is correct, he makes the fantastic claim that perversions of desire, or kinks, have the potential to halt the oppressive valuation of persons and objects by capital. This is because perversion is often unrequited and cannot lead to procreation. It is thus non-exchangeable and unproductive. It’s unclear how to go from there, but Klossowski makes a long-jump back to the Phalanstere utopian communes of Charles Fourier where communers associate freely based on mutual desire. In Klossowski’s proposed economy, practitioners compensate each other by relinquishing sovereignty over their own bodies, allowing the other to subject them to the highest forms of sexual humiliation.
Before tear gas there was flaming trash. Neoliberal governance operates by distributing high systemic risk onto low-priority stakeholders while simultaneously shifting the onus of that risk away from a collective pooling and towards individual responsibility. A low-priority stakeholder in this formulation may be a population living in the vicinity of an incinerator, or an already immuno-compromised and non-productive portion of the citizenry in a pandemic. Resilience is a measure of the ability of a system to withstand shock and variation and still maintain its internal relationships. Resilience as a cultural discourse within neoliberal governance often comes to mean that communities and ecologies cannot pragmatically expect qualitative change or progress, but must channel labor into managing perennial crisis and risk.
If such is the constant functioning of governance machines, then why not write novel social contracts that don’t put up a pretense of total protection of the citizen by the sovereign? Why not call a spade a spade? To be sure, this is also a fantastic claim.
Contracts of risk-aware consensual kink take place between two or more parties, and presuppose a full awareness of the risks inherent to any exchange. There is no “safe” or “unsafe” within risk-aware consensual kink, only “safer” and “less safe.” In the film, the lone protagonist does a sun salutation and a downward dog and fills a bulb-enema with toxic leachate in the newly-opened seaside landfill north of Beirut. The final scene depicts a naive group attempt at a line dance or parade at the edge of the water. The subjects party to risk-aware consensual kink contracts are evidently not concerned with optimizing health and maximizing longevity, not out of fatalism but out of mere acknowledgement of the awful weather conditions that be. They are closer to the perverted subject that Klossowski describes than they are to homo-economicus, the law-abiding, free-enterprising, ideal White male. Theirs is a weird economy of bodies that recognizes and embraces the retrograde motion of biological life in relation to the grinding march of economic growth.
In 1895, Enrico Ferri, the Italian criminologist and socialist, and later adherent of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, published a short book titled Socialism and Modern Science. In it, he answered to right-wing detractors by attempting to reconcile Marxian socialism with the then newly reigning schools of Social Darwinism and Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary philosophy.1
Ferri, himself an ardent positivist and evolutionist, argued against any view that held that socialism would hinder natural selection and prevent the human species from continuing to evolve. He believed that even though in more primitive human societies the “struggle for existence” dominates, in more advanced societies the will to cooperate will hold greater sway. Thus, a socialist society is a higher stage of human development where evolution does not cease, but where the “fittest” is the morally and physically “best,” because such is their grounding environment. To be “revolutionary” was not contradictory to being “evolutionary.”
Before the virus there was teargas. The October 17th uprising broke out with fire and destruction wreaked on banks and luxury storefronts in downtown Beirut by motorcycle squadrons of largely unemployed suburban youths. The uprising’s media image was sanitized in the following weeks by virtue of its more photogenic, middle-class, and family-friendly factions, and its public squares were dominated by chants asserting the non-violent nature of the mobilization against the repression of the Internal Security Forces. Debates were had about whether non-violence is a tactic useful to maintain popular support for the protests, or whether it is of the core essence of the movement. Still, images of thrashed and flaming ATM machines thrilled anyone I knew who lived in an urban metropole in the Global North, namely New York, where I arrived on the second day of ill-fated 2020.
At the beginning of the year, it was still thought that such scenes were inconceivable, or at least implausible, in the U.S. In Days of Rage (2015), Bryan Burroughs notes that any of the minor acts of radical political terror that took place in 1970s New York now seem fully incredible to the average American in the post-9/11 present. All writing is stillborn and already out-of-date. Assata Shakur, who escaped to Cuba at the end of that decade 40 years ago, said that non-violent action hits its glass ceiling because most people pay little mind to things that are not abrasive. When violent protesters in Beirut or New York smash the glass of a luxury hotel in the city center, they exercise their right to give a bad review of sorts, as stakeholders in their own governance. The brutality of the NYPD is unlike anything I had seen coming out of the circumstantially underfunded International Security Forces in Beirut. Yet, trite comparisons of the tolls that different war machines are able to exert only serve to betray the fallen.
Walter Benjamin did not spare Enrico Ferri’s evolutionism. Of Ferri and other evolutionary socialists, he wrote: “they thought that natural scientific materialism ‘automatically’ turned into historical materialism simply by being in the hands of the proletariat.” In the Theses on the Philosophy of History and elsewhere, Benjamin defended and championed Charles Fourier’s utopian view on nature and labor in the face of the vulgar-Marxists, positivist technocrats, and progressivist social democrats.2
Writing in the early years of the Third Reich, Benjamin railed against the socialist democratic doctrines that valorized work as the source of wealth in society and condoned the unshackled exploitation of nature as raw material. He insisted on a latent continuum between the technocracy of the social democrats and the rationalization behind the exterminatory drives of the Nazi. To this conformism, he counterpoised Fourier’s cooperativist labor that would ultimately birth “four moons” and turn seawater sweet. The conceptions of nature that have dominated Western thought since the resolution of WWII have taken the nature-as-raw-material axiom to be a precondition for more elaborate definitions. First-order cybernetics viewed natural and social systems as necessarily and regularly returning to homeostasis; this cohered with Keynesian economic programs that necessitated the intervention of states and central banks to mitigate the fluctuations of the market and return them to equilibrium. Second-order cybernetics tended instead towards the notion of resilience, insisting that ecological, financial, and social systems operate though crisis and do not have an equilibrium to return to, which ultimately chimed well with the onset and flourishing of the neoliberal era in the latter third of the century after the waning of Keynesianism.
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the need for a scientifically grounded emergency response came into sharp focus. This led the usual proponents of technocracy to pit scientific expertise and rational deliberation against populist, protectionist, and nationalist fearmongering, further enshrining a false binary of overdetermined crisis-management trajectories. Whenever the ground gives way at moments of historical opening, be they localized or global, the doctrine of technocracy rears its head and presents it as the only level head capable of getting to work to solve the epoch’s exigencies, without much answer to the vagaries of collective deliberation. In the Lebanese uprising, the portion of protesters demanding a “technocrat government” was all but calling for the worst of IMF structural reforms and further privatization. In the U.S, the burgeoning abolitionist movement has long rejected technocratic reforms to policing such as body cameras, insisting that police must not get more equipped, that it must be de-equipped, or that it must cease to exist.
A year later, the Biden government has announced the biggest non-defense public budget, which has been branded a return to an economic nationalism, and even heralded as a veritable turn away from the neoliberal policies of the last handful of decades. This may prove to have been an overshot—the U.S. state’s intervention in the economic recovery necessitated by the scale of the pandemic may go down in the books as a mere fluke in neoliberalism’s long reign. In Lebanon, the sectarian-clientelist system entrenches itself further as IMF restructuring stalls, even as the explosion, hyperinflation, and ongoing mass immiseration have debilitated citizens, Palestinian and Syrian refugees, and migrant workers under the Kafala system, and in varying degrees.
In any case, we make specific figurations with our grief. The young men who were killed by the usurper state’s army and the police in the uprising in Beirut were made martyrs by those of us wanting to commemorate their labor. I’ve often felt that after the fact, holding on to the virtue of martyrdom, as indecorous as the term even sounds in contemporary English, is a perfectly sound mechanism for processing collective grief, specifically when it is the result of autocratic state brutality or imperial terror. It’s a lot more difficult to cling to martyrdom in the case of the latent violence of markets. It seems easier to find relief in the virtue of martyrdom when someone is killed in struggle by rubber bullet than when someone is allowed to die by anthropogenic toxicity, lack of healthcare coverage, or absence of labor regulation. Ultimately, what Social Darwinism; social democracy; technocratic thought; martyrdom, both theological and secular; and abolitionism all have in common is that they inscribe their respective teloses of history onto an austere and forbidding present that rejects any semblance of collective flourishing. For better or worse, they grant their adherents an ideological exit out of the disarray of normalized crisis. The rueful listener may determine for themselves the path of least immiseration.
Enrico Ferri’s Scientific Socialism: A Marxist Interpretation of Herbert Spencer’s Organic Analogy. Naomi Beck. Journal of the History of Biology, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Summer, 2005), pp. 301-325. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4331946
Benjamin wrote the Theses in 1940, shortly before attempting to flee Nazi Gestapo persecution. His decision to ignore Fourier’s anti-Semitism is still a mystery, at least to the writer of this essay; this is strikingly aberrant when viewed in light of his ardent condemnation of Heidegger, well before the latter professed and openly practiced his Nazism.