This article is an attempt to investigate certain problems of the left via the lens of micropolitics and macropolitics, terms first introduced by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (henceforth D&G). Faced with the challenging nature of texts from post-structuralist thinkers like D&G or Foucault, many people make the assumption that they are really motivated by an elitist desire to confuse, intimidate and befuddle the masses and divert theory into useless abstractions, far removed from the concerns of ordinary people for social transformation and liberation from oppression and exploitation. However a careful reading of D&G’s Micropolitics and Segmentarity chapter in “A Thousand Plateaus” (ATP) reveals they have two main objects in their theorising there - to make sense of the experience of fascism in the 1930s and 1940s and the (then) more recent uprisings of Paris May ‘68. We will try to extend that to looking at more recent problems, passing via the Poll Tax riots of 1990 to looking at today’s current controversies around intersectionality
IMAGE: By Azirlazarus (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
What is Micropolitics? Two possible definitions
There are two ways to understand the macropolitics/micropolitics distinction: the common sense way and the uncommon sense version from D&G’s ATP. We will examine each in turn, see what the relationship between them is and then see how we can use either or both to examine certain problems of the left.
The common sense way to understand the macropolitics/micropolitics distinction is by analogy to macroeconomics and microeconomics and the usual meaning of the macro- and micro- prefixes as “the big” and “the small”, respectively. So micropolitics would be the politics of interpersonal relations and macropolitics would be the politics of large entities or collectivities. The politics of nations, classes, masses and races and genders taken as a “whole”.
Now pretty much all political discourses that make sweeping generalisations about differences between “nations”, “races” and “genders” tends to be the kind of reactionary right-wing bollocks that the left in general is pretty unanimous in rejecting. However, there is a division between those who, on the one hand, go on to generalise the idea that if statements about “macro” categories like nation, race and gender are invalid, then by extension so too must those referencing classes, and on the other hand, the more explicitly socialist left, who reject the former idea as “liberalism”. The scare quotes around liberalism here are less to do with the fact that this is an incorrect use of the term and more to signal that liberalism is one of those words that tend to get thrown around with gay abandon, sometimes appearing as little more than a lefty or socialist swear-word for “things I don’t like”. However, in this particular case, the use of liberal has technical merit because it is explicitly linked to a particular ontology. Let’s grab a quick refresher from wiktionary on what ontology means:
ontology (plural ontologies)
So a social or political ontology is one which addresses the nature of which social entities can be said to really exist, insofar as they have observable influence on social processes. As I have argued elsewhere (see Rethinking Class) there is such a thing as a liberal ontology, which is precisely linked to this idea of reducing all social existence to the individual level, for which Thatcher’s famous “there’s no such thing as society” is simply the same idea taken to its logical conclusion. In this liberal ontology large-scale or “macro” entities such as race, class and gender, are simply imaginary abstractions that may be useful to refer to the sum of individuals’ experience of racist, “classist” or sexist discrimination from other individuals, but do not “really exist” to the extent of being able to exert force on individuals lives in and of themselves. Marx’s characterisation of capital as being a “real abstraction”, for instance, is literally nonsense in a liberal ontology.
In a liberal ontology then, macropolitical processes do not really exist, there is only the sum total of inter-personal or micropolitical processes, understood in the common sense way. The opposition between a liberal ontology and a socialist one that accepts that macro entities such as capital and class have a real existence, is clear and relatively easy to understand from the outset, without any need to go further than the common sense version of these terms.
“And now”, as Monty Python used to say, “time for something completely different…”
In “A Thousand Plateaus” Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (henceforth D&G) wrote a chapter entitled “Micropolitics and Segmentarity” which outlines a macropolitics/micropolitics distinction that is, at first sight, greatly at odds with the more common sense take outlined above. After introducing their conceptualisation they move to inoculate the reader against a more common sense understanding by listing four errors to be avoided in their framework:
Four errors concerning this molecular and supple segmentarity are to be avoided. The first is axiological and consists in believing that a little suppleness is enough to make things "better." But microfascisms are what make fascism so dangerous, and fine segmentations are as harmful as the most rigid of segments. The second is psychological, as if the molecular were in the realm of the imagination and applied only to the individual and interindividual. But there is just as much social-Real on one line as on the other. Third, the two forms are not simply distinguished by size, as a small form and a large form; although it is true that the molecular works in detail and operates in small groups, this does not mean that it is any less coextensive with the entire social field than molar organization. Finally, the qualitative difference between the two lines does not preclude their boosting or cutting into each other; there is always a proportional relation between the two, directly or inversely proportional.
Even with the supporting context that D&G equate micropolitics and macropolitics with “supple segmentarity” and “rigid segmentarity” on the one hand, and the “molar” and “molecular” on the other, the above quote will be mostly impenetrable to anybody who has not already read the full chapter out of which it is plucked. But at least the third error quoted is enough to make clear that we are dealing with something other than the simple small scale versus large scale opposition of the common sense definition above.
D&G’s macropolitics and micropolitics both operate simultaneously on all levels from small to large scale. What makes them micro or macro is not the scale of the network of interactions being looked at, but the scale of the components (or sub-components) interacting in the network and the nature of the interactions between them. So in theory you can have a macropolitics of a two person interaction, or the micropolitics of a large group. In more everyday language the term “group dynamics” usually implicitly includes the ghost of the notion of its micropolitics to the extent that it accepts that there is more going on in the dynamics than the more visible “macro” elements of formal organisation, overt declarations, etc.
Fascism & May 68
But what is the point of such a confusing departure from common sense notions of micro and macro and the introduction of unfamiliar and, at first sight, difficult to understand social ontologies? Well, as we said in the introduction, amongst other things D&G set themselves to task of trying to make sense of the experience of fascism in the 1930s and 1940s and the Paris May days of 1968.
In relation to fascism they pose the question whether there was a significant qualitative difference between the fascist totalitarianism of Franco’s Spain and Mussolini’s Italy on the one hand, and Hitler’s National Socialist “revolution” in Germany, on the other. The answer they come up with relies on their version of the macropolitical/micropolitical distinction. The concept of totalitarianism they find fits well with the macropolitical form fascism takes, but the grassroots level agitation and intense popular enthusiasm National Socialism managed to generate in Germany and Austria, they attribute to micropolitics, specifically to a network of “microfascisms” that permeates society
We would even say that fascism implies a molecular regime that is distinct both from molar segments and their centralization. Doubtless, fascism invented the concept of the totalitarian State, but there is no reason to define fascism by a concept of its own devising: there are totalitarian States, of the Stalinist or military dictatorship type, that are not fascist. The concept of the totalitarian State applies only at the macropolitical level, to a rigid segmentarity and a particular mode of totalization and centralization. But fascism is inseparable from a proliferation of molecular focuses in interaction, which skip from point to point, before beginning to resonate together in the National Socialist State. Rural fascism and city or neighborhood fascism, youth fascism and war veteran's fascism, fascism of the Left and fascism of the Right, fascism of the couple, family, school, and office: every fascism is defined by a micro-black hole that stands on its own and communicates with the others, before resonating in a great, generalized central black hole. There is fascism when a war machine is installed in each hole, in every niche. Even after the National Socialist State had been established, microfascisms persisted that gave it unequaled ability to act upon the "masses." Daniel Guerin is correct to say that if Hitler took power, rather than taking over the German State administration, it was because from the beginning he had at his disposal microorganizations giving him "an unequaled, irreplaceable ability to penetrate every cell of society," in other words, a molecular and supple segmentarity, flows capable of suffusing every kind of cell. [...] What makes fascism dangerous is its molecular or micropolitical power, for it is a mass movement: a cancerous body rather than a totalitarian organism.
Similarly the great uprising of May ‘68 in France took the country and most of the existing left, entirely by surprise, escalating from a small protest over a minor Parisian university cracking down on female students smuggling their boyfriends into their women-only student accommodation block, to barricades on the street of the capital, a state of virtual insurrection and the flight of the President from the country, in a mere matter of days. And the insurrectionary vanguard atop the barricades were not factory workers or Communist party card-carrying proletarians, but a mostly unorganised mass of students. Again D&G find the answer to the riddle of “where the hell did that come from?” in micropolitics.
May 1968 in France was molecular, making what led up to it all the more imperceptible from the viewpoint of macropolitics. It happens that people who are very limited in outlook or are very old grasp the event better than the most advanced politicians, or politicians who consider themselves advanced from the viewpoint of organization. As Gabriel Tarde said, what one needs to know is which peasants, in which areas of the south of France, stopped greeting the local landowners. A very old, outdated landowner can in this case judge things better than a modernist. It was the same with May '68: those who evaluated things in macropolitical terms understood nothing of the event because something unaccountable was escaping. The politicians, the parties, the unions, many leftists, were utterly vexed; they kept repeating over and over again that "conditions" were not ripe. It was as though they had been temporarily deprived of the entire dualism machine that made them valid spokespeople. Bizarrely, de Gaulle, and even Pompidou, understood much more than the others. A molecular flow was escaping, minuscule at first, then swelling, without, however, ceasing to be unassignable. The reverse, however, is also true: molecular escapes and movements would be nothing if they did not return to the molar organizations to reshuffle their segments, their binary distributions of sexes, classes, and parties.
Just as the May revolt of the Parisian students, and indeed the anti-Vietnam war protesting students, hippies, feminists, black power and gay liberationists, vexed a traditional left who “evaluated things in macropolitical terms” exclusively, back in 1968; so today, this article argues, does intersectionality provoke similar vexation and outright hostility amongst the contemporary “macro-reductionist” left. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before we can see whether it makes sense to even talk of a macro-reductionist left we need to outline a minimally-functional sketch of the unfamiliar D&G version of the term and then compare and contrast it with the common sense version to decide what the most useful meaning of the term might be.
To clarify one of the features of the D&G macro/micropolitics distinction we need to look at one feature of their complex and original (read intimidatingly alien, at first sight) ontology. Namely the cybernetic or system dynamics aspect incorporated in their concept of the “machinic”. “Cybernetic” itself is a difficult enough concept to get across given that the available definitions are clear as mud and most people associate it with something to do with computers, machines and robots, rather than human interaction.
Norbert Weiner, the first formaliser of the discipline, originally defined cybernetics as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.”. One of the basic concepts of cybernetics is the feedback loop - that you have some kind of system that both receives stimulus from its environment and has behaviour that acts back upon its environment, the behaviour changing in response to changes in the stimulus and the environment being changed by that behaviour and producing altered stimuli. Although this can be in relation to a single individual machine, animal or human and its natural environment, it can also be a network of individuals representing anything from a small group up to a massive organisation like General Motors or the US State Department.
The key here is that cybernetics looks at the role of communication links between the network of individuals (or nodes) in the system and how the flow of signals between them, in response to external stimuli, affects the behaviour and evolution of that system - and potentially, the individuals that compose it.
The point here, when applying a cybernetic perspective to a system made up of humans, is to contrast it with a more traditional “person-centred” approach. In the person-centred approach, all the intelligence of an association is contained within the individual intelligences of the people that make it up. That is, all the thinking takes place within the head of one or more individuals, and then the communication links between them are relatively neutral or passive conduits that neither add or subtract from the results of these individual processes of using personal intelligence.
The cybernetic approach, by contrast, sees the map of how individuals in the system are linked, how signals flow between them, as having an active determinative effect on the system as a whole. In other words that there is a kind of collective or emergent intelligence of the system’s behaviour that is not to be found entirely siloed in individual brains, but comes from what passes between people, and how. In a similar way, ant colonies or swarms of fish, birds or insects can demonstrate collective intelligent behaviour not reduced to the consciousness of its individual components.
This is a key part of the D&G ontology, that when looking at the dynamics of groups of people what passes between them, what circulates between them, is at least as important a factor, if not the most important one, in determining the outcome of the social process as a whole. If this shift in perspective is a little disconcerting for anybody used to a more traditionally humanist perspective, it should be noted that D&G’s ontology is far more radically anti- or post-humanist than this, but we don’t need to look at that right here. For our purposes we can remain focussed on the implications for human interactions. The significant takeaway here is that we are inverting the more common perspective that, in terms of creativity or social dynamics, people are the active part and the communications between them passive, to one where the communications themselves take on agency - we focus on what passes between people.
And here we can illustrate the difference between the micropolitical and macropolitical for D&G, even at the smallest scale. At the scale of the individual and her environment, we can distinguish between affects and feelings. A feeling is something the individual brings to their consciousness by internally checking their emotional state, and saying “I am happy” or “I am sad” or even “I don’t know how I feel right now”. Feelings are then macropolitical because they relate to the conscious self. However, underneath the (arguably illusory) whole of the conscious self is the seething multitude of, mostly-unconscious, simultaneous complexly-interacting processes that make up a living mind. Affects circulate in that mind regardless of whether they are brought to the attention of the conscious self and then articulated/subsumed into a conscious feeling, or not. Hence we say that the feeling/affect distinction mirrors the macropolitical/micropolitical one, even at the individual level. But more interesting from a social dynamics point of view, is that both feelings and affects can circulate directly between individuals in communication.
We understand implicitly that someone bringing us great news of a positive development for us will engender the same feelings of happiness and excitement as the news-teller. But what is less obvious is that affects, whether of hyper-stimulation, agitation, calm, etc, can also pass between people, without being explicitly articulated at a conscious level. By being self-aware and perceptive we can become aware of them “Wow, this person’s really nervous, and that’s making me nervous too”. But even if we don’t become consciously aware of it, the affect can still pass from them to us, and vice versa.
To take a slightly oblique example, small talk is a concept that can be difficult for many people on the geek-spectrum to grasp. A friend, a self-confessed geek-girl, once told me she didn’t use to get the point of it at all. Why did people insist on talking about trivial or seemingly meaningless topics? Although she tried to respond politely and in a friendly manner to women at work who engaged her in such conversation, internally she was frustrated by the seeming pointlessness of the conversation. She even suspected that people’s motives for indulging in such trivial topics must be because they were trivial people in some way. Then one time she was having a lot of unfair pressure at work, catastrophic personal life and things being overall shit in general, and was feeling upset and miserable at work. A female colleague saw how upset she was and came over and casually engaged her in a conversation about nothing very much at all. My friend felt so much better after this conversation that a light bulb went on in her head. I felt like such a fool, she recounted, to have never realised before that the topic of the conversation wasn’t necessarily the point of the conversation. That sometimes the purpose of a conversation is just reassurance or emotional support or validation and the ostensible topic is entirely secondary. To most people that may seem so obvious as to be a weird thing to draw attention to. But for those of us on the geek-spectrum, the discovery that the surface meaning of a conversation may be entirely secondary can be alarming as it means that the amount of stuff in the big black box of “does not compute…” we find around social interaction suddenly got a lot bigger.
Small talk then, is an everyday example of how people instinctively or consciously make use of the micropolitical passage of affects between people, unconstrained by the macropolitical literal meaning of conversation. Going beyond the feminist slogan that “the personal is political”, D&G propose that "everything is political, but every politics is simultaneously a macropolitics and a micropolitics."
The proposition that “everything is political” may seem deliberately provocative or exaggeration, but it usefully challenges the notion that human interaction can be neatly divided into boxes of “political” and “not-political”. Sometimes some of what the traditional left summarily dump into the “not-political” box is a case of not listening properly or not understanding the real context, in the same way that the friend in the anecdote dismissed small talk as meaningless or trivial.
But if small talk is a relatively benign micropolitical phenonemon, we need to understand that micropolitical dynamics can also be as dangerous or as fatal as macropolitical ones, in certain cases. When D&G talk of “microfascisms” they are not limiting this phenomenon to being the micropolitical underpinning of macropolitical fascism alone:
Only microfascism provides an answer to the global question: Why does desire desire its own repression, how can it desire its own repression? The masses certainly do not passively submit to power; nor do they "want" to be repressed, in a kind of masochistic hysteria; nor are they tricked by an ideological lure. Desire is never separable from complex assemblages that necessarily tie into molecular levels, from microformations already shaping postures, attitudes, perceptions, expectations, semiotic systems, etc. Desire is never an undifferentiated instinctual energy, but itself results from a highly developed, engineered setup rich in interactions: a whole supple segmentarity that processes molecular energies and potentially gives desire a fascist determination. Leftist organizations will not be the last to secrete microfascisms. It's too easy to be antifascist on the molar level, and not even see the fascist inside you, the fascist you yourself sustain and nourish and cherish with molecules both personal and collective.
In 1969 a small breakaway group from the Japanese Communist League calling itself the Red Army Faction (Sekigun-ha), believing the time for revolutionary armed insurrection had come, declared war on the Japanese state and committed a number of small but violent attacks on some police stations and other symbolic institutions. The Japanese state duly responded by arresting most of them, over 200 arrests, including the original founder and chief ideologue Takaya Shiomi. The handful of remnants still at liberty merged with a Maoist breakaway group from the Japanese Communist Party to form the United Red Army (Rengo Sekigun) with a grand total of 29 members. Having lynched (literally) two of their contingent as suspected defectors or collaborators, the remaining URA hid out in the mountains in Gunma Prefecture where they set up a “Guerrilla training base camp”. During the winter of 1971-72 the URA conducted extreme self-criticism sessions which ended in the murder, by beatings, slashing with knives or tying to trees to die of exposure, of a further 12 of their ever-shrinking number. The URA leaders who oversaw this horrific slaughter later refused to accept the deaths as murders, referring to them instead as “death by defeatism”. Finally in mid-February 1972 two men escaped and the police closed in on the URA and arrested nearly all of the survivors, apart from five who escaped and holed up in a mountain lodge taking the wife of the lodge-keeper hostage. The resulting ten day siege was televised across Japan along with the lurid details of torture and murder the police were extracting from the survivors of the URA “anti-defeatist” purge.
The most natural first reaction to this horrific episode is to dismiss it as insanity. Indeed the standard response of the traditional left to other episodes of tyrannical behaviour or internecine violence - of which there are actually quite a lot in past and more recent socialist and irish republican history, if truth be told - is also to drop it in a big bin marked “madness”. This may conveniently side-step the challenge of whether - and how - microfascist dynamics could arise within the left, but it is ultimately problematic on a number of levels.
On the one hand the dismissal of episodes of excessive violence and/or negative intensities simply adds to the general stigmatisation of madness that equates madness and violence generally. Secondly it is dangerously close to conceding the prejudice of the dominant capitalist ideology that violence in pursuit of money and profit is rational, whereas violence in pursuit of non-monetary political aims is, ipso facto, irrational. But most dangerously of all, it implicitly gives an alibi for any and all behaviour of leftist individuals or groups on the grounds that if I/we are not mad, then any line we take, no matter how wildly disproportionate or callous in regard to the harm imposed on others, cannot be anything other than justified by our macropolitical commitment to proletarian emancipation. Thus the various factional splinters of the British WRP attacking each other with baseball bats and iron bars in the 1980s, is not evidence of metastizing microfascisms, but commitment to “our noble cause”. Similarly, also in the 80s, when the rad-fem militants of Women Against Violence Against Women attacked S&M dykes at the “Chain Reaction” night with iron bars, they failed to see any irony (unlike their bloodied victims).
And in case any Irish readers think that this kind of thing only happens in imperialist countries like Japan and the UK, let’s not forget there are plenty of examples closer to home. In fact talk to anybody who’s been on the left for a couple of decades and ask them for their favourite stories of past “madness” and prepare to be boggled. Dismissing these episodes as mental illness not only does injustice to the actual social problems and stigmas of genuine mental illness, but acts not as an explanation but a barrier to serious discussion of the social dynamics that can lead to such disastrous outcomes.
Another example that we can examine not just the distinction, but also the interrelation of the macro- and micropolitical, is the practice of the organiser model in workplace and community organising.
Traditional unions have a strong tendency to reduce all questions of union power to “density”, i.e. what percentage of the workforce in a given industry or shop are union members. This reduction to union power to pure extension, a simple head-count of numbers, makes sense from the perspective of the union bureaucracy whose pay comes from the members subs, but also their rank at the negotiating table in social partnership talks, etc, comes from how many people they can claim to represent.
However even the highest density figure does not magically convert into much union power if the majority of the membership have neither the confidence, the skills or the inclination to take on the bosses in an actual fight. Just as an oil film that covers a puddle can be made to disappear with a simple drop of detergent, shallow density without any depth or intensity of member engagement or organisation can lead to a union that will roll over and play dead at the first sign of determined attack by employers or government. The Irish teachers unions have a union density in the high 90s, but that hasn’t helped them fight the swinging cuts in pay and conditions that the government have inflicted on them in the last few years. But if most of your membership treats the union more as a professional body, like the equivalent ones for doctors or lawyers, we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of actual power all that density adds up to, or doesn’t.
The organiser model, seeks to undo some of the most damaging effects of “third-party” style service unionism by re-engaging the membership as active participants with ownership of their own demands and having the capacity and will to lead their own fights and fight to win. The process of reconstruction this involves relies heavily on one-to-one conversations aimed at finding members issues, and ultimately “moving” them (to use the jargon) into making a personal commitment to actively participate. This process of “moving” people is unquestionably a micropolitical technique, at least in the common sense, basing itself as it does on the specific issues, hopes and fears of the individual involved, rather than a macropolitical appeal to a general abstractly rationalist argument. Of course organising needs to deal with the macropolitical question of density as well, if it is to have any chance of winning, but it is a good example of the operation of political activism that balances the macropolitical and micropolitical together in the attempt to make them interact productively
If the application of the organiser model to workplace or neighbourhood organising is an activity most often associated with a broadly anti-capitalist ethos, or at least a vaguely “socialist” consciousness of the need for workers and tenants to assert their needs pro-actively so as not to suffer the depredations of unfettered capitalism, our next example has no such starting point. For anybody who hasn’t heard of Neuro-Linguistic Programming before, the short version is that it’s a load of old hooey. However it is hooey that has a certain success in propagating its meme amongst some sections of the salespeople and corporate trainers who make a living from selling hooey to the middle-managers and unfortunate underlings in the medium to large corpo sector.
The reason NLP is so popular amongst salespeople and their ilk is that it holds out the promise of getting an edge in their own struggles to “move” people. Briefly it promises through certain techniques of listening and close observation to form a model of the psychological makeup and inner processes of their targets so as to be better able to make an end-run around their conscious mind and appeal to their unconscious triggers. Essentially they want to have the capacity for the same kind of manipulation that stage and TV hypnotists or “mind controllers” such as Derren Brown or Keith Barry entertain their audiences with.
Of course here we are in danger of falling into D&G’s second error as seeing micropolitics as being merely a psychological phenomenon. What’s more, given that in this case one side is consciously trying (with a greater or lesser real understanding) to exploit micropolitical channels or openings in the manner of a computer hacker trying to use vulnerabilities in software for an “exploit”, this is not really a case of micropolitical flow. It simply demonstrates that the channels exist, the openings through which behaviour-influencing signals can flow without going through the macropolitical “front door” of consciousness.
Brick on plexiglass
On the afternoon of the Anti-Poll Tax demonstration of Saturday 31st March 1990 this author was on the corner of Whitehall and Trafalgar Square as three police vans from the British Transport Police rammed their way down through the packed crowd. Some rioting had already begun further down the road by Downing Street and the MoD green, but this reckless driving of vans into a packed mass of people was the real flashpoint that lit the conflagration that a stunned world watched on the news that night. As the vans entered Whitehall the crowd surged forward in their wake. A thin line of round-shield riot cops tried to hold of the top of Whitehall as the missiles rained down on their plexiglass shields and helmets, the staccato of clunks set against the background bass roar of the crowd, creating that unmistakable drum & bass sound of the Great British Riot.
The crowd would surge forward, the riot cops would counter-charge as far as they dared without losing their line or risking getting flanked. In this as so many other riots the crowd moved mostly without explicit communications or any pre-planned coordination. Yet there was, and always is, coordination in these situations, whether in riots or in the immediate reactions of people to disasters.
Even in the initial absence of macropolitical organisation, communication and coordination, the crowd of people who have mostly never met before, without knowing the person stood next to them, can act together and in concert to achieve a common aim. Micropolitical flow is an absolutely essential part of coordination in any riot, battle or rapid response to emergency.
Of course to supplement this “emergency mode” use of swarm or herd tactics, a complementary, reinforcing element of macropolitical coordination soon appears. The experienced or inspired see the opportunity to overturn a van and call out for support. Someone needs people to come a get ammo from a nearby building site. Sharp-eyed observers with tactical nous warn of impending police pincers trying to cut the front-line off. Small affinity groups of rioters who know each other and have fought side by side on many previous occasions move in to reinforce the line. The macro and micropolitical flows of the riotous mob cooperatively form its collective power and intelligence, without requiring generals or standing orders.
Two definitions revisited
It’s now time to return to the question signalled at the start of how to relate the common sense notions of what macro and micro mean in relation to politics and the more “leftfield” (as in, “out there”, rather than specifically left-wing) D&G take on the matter. In my opinion the D&G take, despite it’s initially alien-sounding language and the unfamiliarity of conceptualising the subject, does usefully refer to actual experiences and processes that are familiar to everyone. What’s more, whether it’s the challenge of facilitating/moderating a tense meeting with clear divisions and feelings running high on both sides, or the more one-to-one process of the organiser conversation, the practice of having to pay close attention to not only what is being said, but what is being simultaneously communicated without being explicitly said, is a vital necessity to get productive outcomes.
If we accept the need to pay attention to two parallel processes in practice, then there should be no reason to not pay attention to this duality in theory as well, so as to guide our practice. In my opinion the D&G focus on macropolitics and micropolitics as the flows that pass between people’s interactions usefully extends our ability to do this, beyond the simple “inter-personal versus collective” common sense distinction.
Further that the two different distinctions are not entirely in conflict with, or mutually exclusive to, each other. The inter-personal listening skills of the organiser in the one-to-one conversation is focused on the macropolitical (in the D&G sense) process of teasing out a person’s real issues from behind the smokescreen of “first response” issues that they initially give because they think that’s what you want to hear, or because, for some reason they think they are more socially acceptable than their genuine issues. Part of the listening skills that allow the organiser to do that are micropolitical ones of putting the other person at ease, detecting signals of hesitation or unsureness and so on.
The proposal here, in other words, is that the D&G conceptualisation does not so much contradict the common sense version, as extend it into an additional dimension, analogous to turning a 2D picture into a 3D one.
Above we’ve only really talked about how the macropolitical and micropolitical processes can work in harmony, reinforcing each other, or at cross-purposes, countering each other. However we can also use a dualistic analysis to understand how capitalism’s division of the social sphere into the political and the economic actually affects the differing ways that relations of exploitation and domination or oppression manifest themselves to us. This is actually a way bigger topic than we really have room for here, in an already overlong post, but it’s worth touching on briefly, before moving on to the core issue of the relevance of all this to the current backlash against intersectionality in many left-wing circles.
Assuming that large-scale or “macro” in the common sense, entities do exert influence on individuals, the means by which they do this may be either macropolitical or micropolitical in the D&G sense. Or, more correctly, although the entity/individual relations will actually pass through both simultaneously, albeit in different ways, the dominant manner may be one or the other.
The first proposition here is that categories of domination and oppression, such as race or gender, manifest themselves primarily to individuals on the macropolitical level - i.e. you are made conscious of them, to have their effect on you. In fact, it could be argued that the point of domination is to put your conscious choices at the service of the interest of the dominating force. Which is not to say that effects of race, gender, heterosexism, etc, do not also impact through more subconscious channels - as in fact numerous critics of the oppressive effects of these categories have pointed out (Fanon springs to mind, for e.g.).
The second proposition here, is that categories based on exploitation, such as class, operate predominantly through channels akin to the micropolitical (actually “axiomatic”, within the D&G ontology, but no time for that...) in bypassing and being indifferent to conscious subjectivity. In fact, getting away from the psychological idea of micropolitics as flow of affects, exploitation is as completely indifferent to affects as it is to feelings/emotions as it passes through individuals. In the 19th century factory workers were reduced to mere “hands”, not just verbally, but practically, in operational terms. In an entirely different 21st century context, users of Facebook do not pay to use its “service”, nor are they paid by it, nor are their interactions with it governed by anything other than their own interests. Nonetheless, shareholder value, profit, is being extracted from this activity, without any macropolitical command over the Facebook user’s activity. This too is one of capitalism’s flows of exploitation, without any obvious sign of dominance or oppression.
If categories such as race or gender on the one hand, and class on the other, seem in some way different to us, this cannot be divorced from that fact that they “appear” differently to us, in the sense of the way they initially manifest themselves in our individual lives. If race or gender appear to us directly in the form of interpersonal and institutional relations, then “consciousness-raising” is an appropriate activity to make the link from individual experiences of oppression to the systemic oppression. On the other hand, if the class relation appears to us in the form of individual one-to-one voluntary contracts between us and an employer in the labour market, then the operation of exploitation takes place “behind our backs”, as Marx put it, and the class relation is not immediately apparent on an interpersonal level. It’s operation has to be seen first on a collective level, and then the link back down to one’s individual experience be made in that order.
As noted earlier, this is a big topic, but we need to move on.
Macroleft versus Microleft
We can now move to a consideration of what we might mean by such a term as the “macro-reductionist left”. The term proposes that there is a substantial section of the left that insists either that only macropolitical dynamics really exist, or, alternatively, that maybe some of that “touchy-feely” stuff (the knee-jerk stigmatising term is itself revelatory) does have some relevance in relation to “personal matters” (personal relationships and such-like), but any focus on it runs the risk of quickly transforming into “bourgeois individualism” or, inter-changeably, “identity politics”, both cardinal sins. The macro-reductionist left, then, is characterised by an instinctive suspicion of, and hostility towards anything that smacks of micropolitics.
Partly this is to do with a “rationalist” or positivist discomfort with dynamics and communications that are inherently hard to directly detect, quantify and measure by objective methods. But more fundamentally it is an implicit prejudice that, when it comes to ontology, “there can be only one”. In other words, any departure from a one-sidedly macropolitics must be setting itself up as a one-sidedly micropolitical alternative, which would imply the liquidation of vital macropolitical ontological entities such as class.
In other words, the macroleft see any effort to take micropolitical issues seriously as evidence of a liberal ontology, as we outlined at the start. However, how credible is this? If we look at the social critiques advanced by feminists, anti-racists and others, either back in the 60s or today, most of them explicitly put forward racism or gender as “real abstractions” in a similar vein to Marx’s characterisation of capital (ok, technically according to Sohn-Renthal, but it’s a popular interpretation). In a recent interview with Rabble, guardian journalist Gary Younge said, in response to a question about how Martin Luther King might have reacted to the Obama presidency:
I think it would be consistent with the way [MLK] spoke during his life to say that Obama highlights some of the contradictions of the post-Civil Rights era. Some people are allowed to get on. Racism is a system – it is not about individuals, it is about groups.
Now whether Younge counts as a “liberal” for not being an advocate of the revolutionary overthrow of capital, is not the issue here. In terms of a liberal ontology that refuses the existence of racism as other than the sum of individual racist prejudices, his assertion that racism is a system, doesn’t fit. And it’s a pretty common position amongst anti-racists. Similarly, many feminists, of a range of different varieties, would hold that gender exerts real power as a systemic social relation. And ditto, no doubt, queer theorists and others. The acceptance of the importance of micropolitical issues does not, in and of itself, imply a necessary rejection of the macropolitical such as in a liberal ontology.
It’s important to grasp, however, that there does exist a mirror image of the macroleft which is a micro-reductionist left that focuses on micropolitical dynamics either to the complete exclusion of macropolitical categories like class, or mistakenly trying to articulate it as a purely micropolitical construct, like “classism”. However this does not mean that any politics that addresses micropolitical dynamics seriously, is necessarily restricted to such a microleft. A dualist ontology that addresses both macropolitical and micropolitical dynamics is not only possible, but is ultimately the only comprehensible and consistent reading of both in the sense exposed by D&G.
However, to the macroleft, the notion of a dualist ontology where dynamics are always simultaneously macropolitical and micropolitical, is anathema. Which is ironic given that the ideas of Marx, which most of the macropolitical left still take as a primary reference point, is one of the primary sources for the understanding that the historical specificity of capitalism is precisely its original fracturing of the social ontology into the “ontological doubling” of political and economic spheres operating to autonomous, if necessarily interconnected, logics. How could such clearly dualist origins have been transformed into such an aggressively monist ontology?
The solution to this conundrum is that much of the orthodox Marxist left, while paying lip-service to Marx’s ontological dualism, in practice hold a more pseudo-dualist ontology where one of the poles - the economic - is “more equal” than the other, tending to the extreme of vulgar economism where the economic “base” determines the political “superstructure” - or at least in the most significant cases of “in the final instance”. In essence the ontological problem of the macroleft’s hostility to micropolitics, and by extension intersectionality, is not due to being too Marxist, but not being Marxist enough.
That the hostility of the macroleft is really to micropolitics in general, rather than intersectionality specifically is evidenced by the strong parallels between the arguments and attitudes deployed by the former against the latter and those only recently deployed by the SWP against “creeping feminism” and “autonomism” and the reaction against feminism, gay and black liberation politics in the 1960s and 70s by the macroleft of the day.
Of course today’s “defenders of real class politics” (sic) against intersectionality declare that they are in favour of feminism, anti-racism and fighting homophobia, and distance themselves from the “unfortunate” attitudes of their forerunners against same. And, subjectively-speaking, (despite often being ardent critics of the acceptability of subjectively-based judgements in other circumstances), they are speaking the truth for the most part. And here I think the position of some intersectionalists that macroleft hostility to them can only be evidence of unrecognised misogyny, racism or homophobia is incorrect. For the macroleft is not exclusively populated by men, or white or straight people. And, for that matter, even a good number of the macroleft who are straight white men, have demonstrated their sincere opposition to sexism, racism and homophobia in past deeds as well as words. Unless we are to take a page out of the Zionist playbook and adopt their repulsive habit of slandering their Jewish critics as “self-hating Jews”, clearly we need to look for political motives that go deeper than simple prejudice on the part of women, gay or PoC advocates of the macroleft opposition to intersectionality.
The key to deconstructing the inconsistency of this opposition lies in the ambiguous use of the word “divisive” by the macroleft when summing up what they find most objectionable in intersectionality. On the one hand “divisive” invokes the spectre of a zero-sum game, a “class-as-identity” perspective that sees any attention given to any category other than class as necessarily subtracting from it. It’s not so much that they refuse to admit the existence of categories of gender or race, but that they see them as in direct competition with class, so that in terms of “primary identity”, class is mutually exclusive with all other categories. This sense of “divisive” as being in competition with class presupposes a monistic or at best merely pseudo-dualistic ontology that confuses class and identity, exploitation and oppression.
The second use of “divisive” is in the accusation of intersectionalists causing divisive arguments and alienating people by an overly confrontational or abusive manner. The actual validity of these accusations are open to question, to say the least. But have been challenged and criticised more than adequately elsewhere, so other than saying there is something of Irish right-wing columnist John Waters’ claim to being oppressed by the liberal-feminazi establishment about some of these claims, the merits of the charges themselves are not at issue here.
What is at issue - the ambiguity already mentioned - is that the critique is effectively a charge of microfascistic behaviour on the part of intersectionalists.
Now if we accept that microfascisms can arise within the political dynamics of any group, regardless of it’s stated macropolitical principles, then that challenge can be put to any group, not just authoritarian socialists of the orthodox Marxist ilk, but no less anarchists (libertarianism is a macropolitical affiliation and “manarchism” actually is “a thing” rather than the slur some dismiss it as) and feminists, intersectionalists and anybody else.
However there is a direct contradiction between, on the one hand, claiming that any acceptance of micropolitics as valid grounds for criticism is “divisive”, and on the other forming a critique of “divisiveness” that is itself micropolitical, on the other. And indeed, the few critiques from the macroleft that rise above the level of pure ressentiment and apolitical hostility, does unmistakeably have this content. Let’s take as an example a recent statement from the Anti-Capitalist Intiative’s Charlie Winstanley on the recent International Solidarity Network split, rejected by the ACI but gleefully reprinted by the ever-trollish Weekly Worker:
“The total effect is to create an environment in which free discussion of ideas is impossible. Oppressed groups and individuals operate as a form of unassailable priesthood, basing their legitimacy on the doctrine of original sin. To extend the analogy, discussions become confessionals in which participants are encouraged to self-flagellate and prostrate themselves before the holy writ of self-awareness. Shame and self-deprecation are encouraged to keep non-oppressed groups in their place, and subvert the social pyramid of oppression, with oppressed groups at the top.
But the question begs, to what ends? Whom does it benefit to have oppressed groups sitting atop a conversation increasingly restricted to a tiny and declining far left, becoming ever more exclusive and alienated from social discussion with its hostile and complicated etiquettes and procedures? What individual in their right mind would seek liberation in this movement, riddled with its own internal inquisition?”
In passing, let’s note that the subverted social pyramid of oppression echoes the earlier critique of inverted hierarchies found in the anarchist - and intersectionalist - writer, Gayge Operaista in their critique of liberal gay politics in “A critique of anti-assimilationism”. In the quote here the ACI writer is clearly critiquing (however unfairly) the creation of an affective environment of shame, guilt and inquisition that would have no doubt been familiar to the poor wretches of the Japanese United Red Army. While we have yet to hear of people being lynched or knifed to death by the putative “intersectionalist inquisition” in the same way as the URA, the point here is that the critique is not of the overt or macropolitical commitments of the intersectionalists to combatting racism, sexism, etc, but to an imputed micropolitical “will to power” for domination and control of what constitutes acceptable discussion.
So now what?
So how do we get beyond the stale and unproductive mutual hostility and confrontation between the macroleft and the microleft?
In terms of those advocates of intersectionality or other micropolitical-issue addressing political tendencies that actually do exhibit a left liberal ontology, the response is obvious. Firstly, simply drawing attention to all those parts of the works of the writers and activists from the particular tendency they take inspiration from that explicitly talk of the reality of social relations and categories of oppression. Secondly pointing out the inconsistencies of trying to reduce exploitation in money terms (and what other terms are there?) to being a type of oppression (often inversely proportional in practice). Thirdly exposing the contradictions in casting class as a form of oppression, rather than exploitation. Finally in pointing out that while you don’t necessarily have to be into authoritarian and representational politics to advocate a monist ontology, it is enough of a convenient fit for such reactionary politics to give serious liberationists pause for thought.
In relation to the macroleft, the most obvious contradiction is that a tendency that prides itself on having a rational macropolitical critique of all social phenomena simply does not have such a critique of intersectionality. The emperor has no clothes. Every critique they have attempted to formulate so far, in the rare case of progressing beyond simple abuse and slander, has been a micropolitical one, which contradicts the premise of their argument, and indeed their basic ontology. To genuinely criticise the monist liberal ontology they would have to examine the limits of their own monism, and self-criticism is precisely the thing that the current macroleft hostility to intersectionality is trying to avoid. For decades the macroleft has convinced itself that it was keeping the flame of working class anti-capitalist rebellion alive, waiting for the inevitable coming capitalist crisis. The crisis has come and the result for the left has been massive defeat, rather than growth or victory. The resulting demoralisation has led to the current aggressive seeking for enemies to blame or witches to burn. Whatever you may think of Keynes (and the macroleft’s dirty secret is that it claims Lenin but demands Keynes) his question that “if the facts contradict my theory, I change my theory. What do you do?” has never been so relevant.
In addition, the one problem that both the macro-left and liberal intersectionalists and other tendencies of the microleft actually have in common, is a failure to really engage with the looming environmental catastrophe that overshadows 21st century radical politics. Again this is a problem stemming from the ontological similarity between the two. In this case an overly “person-centred” or humanist bias.
A more genuinely materialist (rather than economistic) ontology has to include the intersection of three relational logics - 1) the relation between people and the macropolitical social relations that define our current capitalist mode of production, framed by property, the law of value and producing exploitation the class struggle; 2) the relation between people and big-O “Other” people, framed by identity, subjectification and producing hierarchies of domination and oppression; 3) the relation between people and the environment, framed by “externality” (in value terms) and producing environmental destruction and unsustainable resource overuse. In the context of these, the struggle of the revolutionary movement is towards economic emancipation, political liberation and environmental transition. Neither brain-dead “development of the forces of production” (aka “Jobs & Growth!”), nor personal liberation from all interpersonal oppressions is going to deal with the environmental crisis. Neither will leaving it to those who think a new “green” state authoritarianism is the answer either, for that matter.
Enough. Exploring D&G’s notion of the macropolitical class relation having its micropolitical counterpart in masses, important as it is to understanding both the force and the limits of the uprisings of the Arab Spring, the movement of squares, etc, will have to wait for another time.
This is one of those pieces you start off in the complacent conviction that you have a clear idea of what you’re going to write about, how the argument will be structured, with a start, middle and conclusion, only to discover that you were utterly, utterly mistaken. It was some way in before I realised that I couldn’t hope to finish this piece I would just have to settle for quitting at some point. Once I started pulling on this conceptual thread more and more things kept popping out, more connections, more things to be explained, more questions to be answered. In a way the text itself became a mini D&G-style war machine, insatiable, uncontrollable and unstoppable. The result, I’m afraid is an unruly rambling mess. I can’t say if the attempt to read it will bring you any benefit, but from an entirely selfish point of view, I found writing it amazingly productive in terms of the lines of future enquiry it has opened up for me. I can only offer commiserations if the process of reading it turned out to be painful, frustrating or mystifying, though.
My first encounter with Deleuze and Guattari was through my comrades in the Free Association, one of whom, Keir, suggested that our next reading group work should be A Thousand Plateaus. He claimed that reading it had changed the way he thought about politics, life, everything, even if he couldn’t explain it. Grappling with ATP was a bit like that bit at the start of Alien where the crew explore a shipwrecked alien spaceship. Most of our reading group conversations started with “What the fuck does this bit mean?” usually responded with “Dunno, but I think maybe… not sure, though”. Like the alien infection, you walk away from your encounter with ATP and initially think you’re unchanged and unaffected. And then some time later, even years afterwards, it suddenly bursts out of your chest, mewling its monstrous desire to devour the world. So I blame you for this Keir, it’s all your fault… ;)
Finally, I was going to include the following as a header quote, but as one of my draft reviewers rightly pointed out, that sort of thing is OK for book chapters, but doesn’t really work with online pieces, particularly if the relevance is oblique, rather than obvious up front. As a musician I find the analogy between a dualistic analysis, such as the one macropolitics and micropolitics gives us, and the “dialectical unity” - until recently mistaken by Western musicology as polyphony - of the African cross-rhythm to be irresistible. One day soon, perhaps, the left will have the confidence to venture beyond the “four-four-to-the-floor” marching band monometric rhythm of past dogmas and start learning to dance to a different beat, one more complex and yet more true to life. We live in hope.
“cross-rhythm: A rhythm in which the regular pattern of accents of the prevailing meter is contradicted by a conflicting pattern and not merely a momentary displacement that leaves the prevailing meter fundamentally unchallenged”
New Harvard Dictionary of Music
“By the very nature of the desired resultant rhythm, the main beat scheme cannot be separated from the secondary beat scheme. It is the interplay of the two elements that produces the cross-rhythmic texture”
Foundational Course in African Music, C.K. Ladzekpo
"[The] resultant [3:2] rhythm holds the key to understanding . . . there is no independence here, because 2 and 3 belong to a single Gestalt."
Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions, Kofi Agawe
Deleuze & Guattari, Micropolitics and Segmentarity
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