Saul Newman – Postanarchism and space: revolutionary fantasies and autonomous zones



In this paper, I call for a re-consideration of anarchism and its alternative ways of conceptualising spaces for radical politics. Here I apply a Lacanian analysis of the social imaginary to explore the utopian fantasies and desires that underpin social spaces, discourses and practices – including planning, and revolutionary politics. I will go on to develop – via Castoriadis and others – a distinctly post-anarchist conception of political space based around the project of autonomy and the re-situation of the political space outside the state. This will have direct consequences for an alternative conception of planning practice and theory.

‘Only the autonomous can plan autonomy, organize for it, create it’ (Bey, 1991: 100).

Social theory has in recent times taken a spatial turn. In the case of political theory, dis­cussions about the spatial dimensions and imaginaries of politics have drawn on political geography in order to investigate the contours of pluralism, the public space, democratic agonism, social movements, and the post-national spaces of globalisation (see Massey, 2005; Sassen, 2008; Mouffe, 2000; Connolly, 2005). Here the question of planning – the planning of cities, urban landscapes, autonomous spaces, aesthetic communities and so on – inevitably arises. Indeed, politics and urban planning have always been intimately connected, whether we think of utopian imaginaries of Fourier or Saint-Simon, with their rationally planned communities, or the way that the planning of modern cities and metropolises has always been haunted by the spectre of insurrection and dissent. Planning practices and discourses may be seen as a sublimation of politics, as well as a crystalliza­tion of conflict. If one casts a parallax gaze on our cities today, one finds traces everywhere of the repressed political dimension.[1] Space is therefore always political. Indeed, as Henri Lefebvre shows, space is a particular constellation of power and knowl­edge that reproduces the social relations of production; space has a political function in providing a kind of integrative framework for the capitalist mode of production and for political power (1991: 9).

However, if space is seen as a framework for dominant political and economic interests, my aim here is to explore the ways in which this hegemonic space is challenged, contested and reconfigured, as well as the fantasies and desires invested in political spaces. It is in this context that I would like to consider the question of space for radical politics, and, in par­ticular, for that most heretical of all radical political traditions – anarchism. After showing that anarchism is more than simply the anarchic disruption of space – indeed, anarchist thought and politics suggests an alternative construction of space – I will go on to explore the way in which social and political spaces are imagined in revolutionary discourse. It is here that a Lacanian analysis of the social imaginary becomes important, as it not only reveals the utopian fantasies and desires that underpin social spaces, discourses and prac­tices – including planning – but also makes visible the hidden structural link between revo­lutionary politics and political authority; between the desire for revolutionary transgression and the affirmation of a new Master. Taking Lacan as a critical point of departure here, I will go on to develop – via Castoriadis and others – a distinctly postanarchist conception of political space based around the project of autonomy. This will have direct consequences, as I will show, for an alternative conception of planning practice.

Anarchism and planning

Is radical politics simply a disruption of the existing order of space, or does it invent its own alternative spatial imaginaries; and, if so, what are these imaginaries? What is the space of radical politics today? What spaces does it occupy, contest and imagine?

In the once vacant symbolic place left by the collapse of the state socialist systems, we have seen the emergence of a new radical spatial imaginary defined not so much by institutions and political parties, but by social movements which create, in their prac­tices, discourses and modes of action, new political, social and economic spaces, new imaginaries. What shapes this alternative political space is, I would argue, the idea of autonomy. Rather than seeking to take over state power, or to participate in state institu­tions at the level of parliamentary politics, many contemporary actors and movements endeavour to create autonomous spaces, social practices and relations, whether through the permanent or temporary occupation of physical spaces – squats, community centres and cooperatives, workplace occupations, mass demonstrations and convergences – or through the experimentation with practices such decentralized decision-making, direct action or even alternative forms of economic exchange, which are not striated, condi­tioned or ‘captured’ by statist and capitalist modes of organization.

This new form of politics demands a certain reconsideration of anarchism. I would like to understand anarchism – or as I conceive of it, postanarchism – as a new way of thinking about the politics of space and planning, one that I see as becoming more rele­vant today. This no doubt appears a strange undertaking. Anarchism is usually associated with a kind of wild disordering of space, as a politics and practice of disruption and spontaneous insurgency – the very opposite of planning. Should we not recall the nine­teenth-century anarchist Mikhail Bakunin’s dictum about the ‘urge to destroy’? However, we should remember that, for Bakunin, this ‘urge to destroy’ was also a ‘creative urge’. Anarchism is as much a project of construction and creation as it is about destruction. Indeed, for anarchists, it is the order of state and capitalist economic power, with its depredations and disruption of autonomous social life, which is violently destructive. If left to themselves, people would find ways of peacefully cooperating with one another. Anarchy is order, the state disorder – as the old saying goes. Therefore, anarchism has to be considered as much a project of order as disorder; or perhaps a project of ordered disorder (or disordered order). No doubt there will be a moment of spontaneous revolt, of insurrection, of the tearing up of paving stones and the erection of barricades; a con­frontation – possibly violent – with the mechanisms of state power. But this would be accompanied by a process of rational planning, based around the possibilities of coopera­tive and communal ways of life. We find in anarchist writings many examples of utopian planning, despite the assertion of the classical anarchists that they were not utopians but ‘materialists’. There were various models put forward of federalism and libertarian col­lectivism; arguments for decentralized forms of agricultural planning, and for local, small-scale rural production over large-scale industry (see Kropotkin, 1985).

Contemporary anarchist thinkers have also engaged extensively with environmental questions, analyzing the link between human domination and ecological despoliation. It is argued by some that we should think in terms of an overall ‘social ecology’: not only is the destruction of the natural environment a reflection of the forms of domination, hierar­chy and exploitation found in social and economic relations; but also the possibilities of a free and rational society. As Murray Bookchin[2] puts it: ‘Our continuity with non-hierar­chical nature suggests that a non-hierarchical society is no less random than an ecosystem’ (1982: 37). At the heart of anarchist theory is the image of a rationally planned society; but not one whose order is imposed from above by a class of enlightened technocrats – an idea anarchists absolutely despised – but, on the contrary, a rational, non-hierarchical order immanent in social relations and emerging organically from below.

This concern for social ecology and the human environment accounts for the interest anarchists take in geography, physical spaces and the history and design of cities. The great anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus wrote about the impact of the layout of cities on their inhabitants, and the deleterious effect of overcrowding, poor planning, pollution and the lack of hygiene. He likened the city and its inhabitants to a collective organism whose health and quality of life would be improved through good planning and urban renewal, with attention given to street cleaning, rubbish disposal, as well as the establishment of municipal parks. The idea of the garden city was advocated by Reclus, and many other anarchists, as a way of making cities more liveable.[3] What is important here is not only the project of designing cities around the needs of ordinary people, but also allowing the spon­taneous and organic expression of a city’s unique beauty, as appropriate to its individual natural environment, rather than imposing upon it, bureaucratically from above, a rigid, uniform design. As Reclus put it: ‘True art is always spontaneous and can never adapt itself to the dictates of a public works commission’ (cited in Clark and Martin, 2004: 193).

Furthermore, the city is often conceived of as a political space, a site – or a potential site – for popular self-determination and decentralized democratic decision-making. Kropotkin, another geographer, saw the medieval city as an autonomous political space with its own set of rules, customs, practices and institutions, where individual freedom and cultural life flourished (see 1943). This autonomy, however, was gradually lost and obscured under the looming shadow of the sovereign state. The city is therefore seen as an important space of independent political life, in opposition to the encroachment of the authoritarian, centralized state apparatus. In the same vein, Bookchin explores the his­tory of cities as spaces of public participation in politics, looking back to the democratic traditions of the Athenian agora. The city is thus imagined as the model for a renewal of public life, as a form of political being-in-common, one that differs from the anonymity of the bureaucratic processes of ‘statecraft’ (see Bookchin 1995: 4).

Far, then, from anarchism simply being an anti-politics of disruption, it is also – indeed, primarily – a politics of planning. Central to anarchist theory is a conflict between two opposed spatial imaginaries, two opposing ways of organising political and social life: one the one hand, a rational and libertarian space, a federation of free communes and cities; on the other, the state-capitalist order, a space of irrational authority, hierarchy and violence. The former spatial arrangement promotes individual freedom, cooperation, equality, as well as the close involvement of ordinary people with decision-making pro­cesses; the latter fosters domination, inequality, servitude and the absolute alienation of people from political power.

Planning theory can therefore gain a great deal from an engagement with anarchism. Indeed, as Peter Hall recognizes, anarchism has historically had a strong influence on the planning movement, inspiring an ethos of planning based around small-scale communi­ties, voluntary cooperation and free association: ‘The vision of these anarchist pioneers was not merely of an alternative built form, but of an alternative society, neither capital­istic nor bureaucratic-socialist: a society based on voluntary cooperation among men and women, working and living in small self-governing commonwealths’ (1996: 3). Perhaps the clearest exponent of anarchist principles in questions of planning and urban design was Colin Ward, who wrote extensively about the anarchist inspiration behind direct action practices such as squatting, DIY building, tenant cooperatives and community gardening. Central to these practices, according to Ward, was the idea of people acting autonomously and collaboratively to reclaim control of spaces in order to survive, and, in doing so, radically transforming, from the ground up, their physical environment (see Ward, 1982, 2000, 2002; Crouch and Ward, 1997).

Furthermore, anarchism raises the crucial question of who plans? Planning, as it is usually conceived, is an elite practice and discourse: it is the idea of a certain order of space imposed from above upon pre-existing social relations by a cadre who claim a superior technical knowledge. The very notion of planning seems to convey the idea of a technocratic activity, in which a particular vision is bureaucratically forced upon society. Anarchists are particularly critical of this sort of mentality. Bakunin, for instance, accused Marx and his followers of scientific elitism: ‘scientific Communists’ sought to organize the people ‘according to a plan traced in advance and imposed upon the ignorant masses by a few “superior” minds’ (1953: 300). Therefore, if we can speak of ‘anarchist planning’ it must be a form of organisation that emerges spontaneously, and which people determine freely for themselves. We have no reason to believe that this would be chaotic, and, indeed, there are many examples of self-organized communes and collectives which have arranged their own spaces in highly rational and efficient ways. We think here of the anarchist collectives in Spain during the Civil War, which were organized democratically and non-hierarchically, and which provided services like free health care, education, care for the elderly, as well as running cooperative industries, workshops, farms, food distribution centres, restaurants, hotels and public transport systems. Or, in our time, we might think of the Zapatista autonomous communities, which provide schools and health care facilities to the indigenous people of Chiapas. The point of an anarchist approach to planning would be therefore to question and break down the hierarchical structures and the intellectual division of labour usually associated with the planning process; to show that people have a capacity to plan for themselves and to act cooperatively in the organisation of physical space. An anarchist approach is based around what Jacques Rancière would call the equality of intelligence (see 1991); planning should be an expression of the presupposition of equality, the equal capacity of everyone to plan for themselves, in cooperation with others. Planning does not belong to an elite class or discipline, nor should it be the prerogative of governments; it is not a science or a professional discourse, but rather the active expression of a politics of libertarian egalitarianism.

Revolution as a spatial fantasy

If anarchism gives us new ways of thinking about space and planning, then how should we approach the question of revolution? Revolution would suggest the violent disorder­ing and de-planning of existing spaces, and the replacement of one social plan – one spatial order – with another. As we have seen, anarchism seeks the abolition of the politi­cal space of hierarchy and authority – the space constituted by state power and capitalism – and the creation of an alternative social space of free communal arrangements. However, when we think of revolution – a concept central to the radical political tradi­tion – in spatial terms, as a political space, the picture becomes somewhat ambiguous. What exactly is a revolution? What sort of space does it imagine and occupy?

The classical model of revolution is constructed around the image of a centralized place of power – the political space of the state – which can be seized, taken over, mas­tered by a revolutionary vanguard. This particular conceptualisation of the revolution, it should be noted, is not the anarchist one but rather the Marxist one, or, to be more accu­rate, the Leninist one.[4] It is based on the Jacobin model of the revolutionary leadership which seizes control of the state, and uses state power to revolutionize society. As Gramsci perceived, the Leninist strategy was based on a certain spatial mapping of soci­ety, one that was suited to the conditions of Tsarist Russia at that time: a centralized, autocratic state, with the Winter Palace as its symbolic place of power, which would be seized in what Gramsci termed a war of ‘movement’ or ‘manoeuvre’. This was in con­trast to the ‘war of position’ which involves building counter-hegemonic practices and institutions at the level of civil society, a strategy that was better suited to the more com­plex and developed society/state structures of Western democracies (see Gramsci, 1971). However, if the revolutionary strategy thus diagnosed by Gramsci was not suited to more complex societies in his time, it is perhaps even less so today, where new forms of ‘net­worked’ sovereignty have proliferated in an increasingly globalized and integrated world, and where a symbolic centre of power is much harder to discern (see Hardt and Negri, 2000). There is no more WinterPalace to storm, and radical political theory is faced with the task of mapping a much more complex and fragmented field of power relations.[5]

In thinking through this problem, psychoanalytic theory may be of help – in particular the thought of Jacques Lacan, which has been applied to an analysis of the social imagi­naries, utopian fantasies and desires which underpin the practices and discourses of both politics (see Žižek, 1989, 2000; Stavrakakis, 1999, 2007; Dean, 2009) and planning (see Gunder and Hiller, 2004; Hillier, 2003; Gunder, 2004, 2010). There are two main aspects of Lacanian theory that I see as particularly useful for critically reflecting on this idea of revolution. Firstly, Lacan’s theory of the four discourses, articulated in response to the radicalism of May ’68, reveals the structural link between revolutionary desire and the position of authority that it contests. We might recall here Lacan’s ominous warning to the student militants: ‘The revolutionary aspiration has only a single possible outcome – of ending up as the master’s discourse. This is what experience has proved. What you aspire as revolutionaries to is a master. You will get one…’ (2007: 207).[6] What exactly did he mean?

Lacan sought to understand communication, and social relations generally, in terms of structural positions or ‘discourses’: discourse refers to a structural position constituted by relations of language, but which is nevertheless beyond actual words and utterances (see Verhaeghe, 1995). There are four discourses – the University, Master, Hysteric and Analyst – and they might be seen as different ways of articulating social relations and functions. In this sense, they are crucial to the question of radical politics because they are a way of explaining social changes and upheavals. For the purposes of this discus­sion, I shall focus on two of these discourses – the Master and the Hysteric – and the paradoxical relationship between them.

The discourse of the Master is the discourse that embodies self-mastery – the attempt to constitute an autonomous ego, one whose identity is secure in complete self-knowl­edge. This discourse is characterized by the dominance of what Lacan calls the Master Signifier, through which the subject sustains the illusion of being identical with his own signifier. In order to sustain this self-identity, this discourse excludes the unconscious – the knowledge that is not known – as this would jeopardize the ego’s sense of certainty and autonomy. Therefore, the discourse of the Master stands in a particular relation of authority to knowledge, seeking to dominate it, and exclude the knowledge of the uncon­scious. The Master’s position of authority over knowledge also instantiates a position of political authority: political discourses are, for instance, based on the idea of being able to grasp the totality of society, something that is, from a Lacanian point of view, impos­sible. Implicated in this discourse, then, is the attempt to use knowledge to gain mastery over the whole social field; it is a discourse of governing (see Bracher, 1997: 107). In this sense, we might see top-down planning practices as examples of the Master’s discourse.[7]

The discourse of the Hysteric, by contrast, is associated with the practice of protest­ing, and in this sense it is always pitted against the authority of the Master. In psychoana­lytic terms, the Hysteric is the figure who identifies with her lack, with the absence of the objet petit a – the lost object of desire, the impossible jouissance – and who demands of the Other to fill this lack; her lack is thus address to the Master, of whom she demands to be told the truth of her desire. However, the Master is unable to give her this knowledge which he himself does not have, and so through this (knowing) demand of the Hysteric’s, the Master’s impotence and imposture, his symbolic castration, is exposed. As Kirsten Campell explains: ‘the Discourse of the Hysteric articulates the ‘truth’ of the Master’s Discourse: namely that it is founded on the operation of castration and that its effect is the unconscious’ (2004: 52).

What might be the political implications of this paradoxical relationship between the Master and Hysteric? What is being explored here is the dialectic between the law and transgression, between political and social authority and revolutionary desire. Lacan shows that these two positions are actually dependent on and sustain one another, much like the Master/Slave dialectic in Hegel where the identity of the Master is dependent on its recognition by the Slave. Radical political thought must thus come to terms with the possibility that revolutionary practices might actually sustain the symbolic position of authority – the place of power (see Newman, 2004b) – that is being challenged here. We can see this in a number of ways: for instance, the act of protesting and resisting can actu­ally symbolically legitimize the state as ‘democratic’ and ‘tolerant of dissent’[8]; or the way that in making radical demands on the state – demands which by their nature cannot be met – activists might in a sense be playing a hysterical game with power, a game that only reaffirms it. As Slavoj Žižek puts it, in his criticism of Simon Critchley, whose posi­tion is more characteristic of anarchism: ‘Critchley’s anarchic ethico-political agent acts like a superego, comfortably bombarding the state with demands; and the more the state tries to satisfy these demands, the more guilty it is seen to be’ (Žižek, 2007).

However, it seems to me that Žižek’s alternative neo-Leninist strategy – which he sees as breaking out of this deadlock of mutual parasitism in ‘passing to the act’ and seizing control of state power, rather than impotently resisting it – fares little better. While this might escape the Hysteric’s stance, it only ends up in the lap of the Master: indeed, in seizing control of the state and using it to revolutionize society, the vanguardist strategy only reaffirms and reproduces state power. So, from a Lacanian perspective, the dis­course of the Master encompasses even those revolutionary theories and political strate­gies which seek to overthrow it. As Lacan says:

What I mean by this is that it embraces everything, even what thinks of itself as revolutionary, or more exactly what is romantically called Revolution with a capital R. The master’s discourse accomplishes its own revolution in the other sense of doing a complete circle (2007: 87).

The revolution remains trapped within the Master’s discourse and thus fails to effect a genuine transformation. The revolution believes that it can master the state, to seize and control it at its helm; but what always happens is that the state masters the revolution – or rather the revolution installs itself on the throne of power, becoming the new Master (which is the same thing). The circle is completed.

It may be that revolutions ultimately fail precisely because they are totalising dis­courses – because, in other words, they propose an absolute break with existing condi­tions and a radical transformation of the totality of social relations; they imagine an Event that encompasses everything, that emancipates us from existing conditions and oppressions and produces a different kind of social order. This brings me to my second point: Lacan allows us to perceive the utopian fantasy underlying any notion of social wholeness or totality, including, and especially, that imagined in the narrative of revolu­tionary transformation.

Central to Lacan’s theory is the notion of the real,that which cannot be represented or signified – a kind of void or absence in the chain of signifiers that create meaning. Indeed, this gap in signification is why the subject cannot form a complete, whole identity – while he or she is forced to seek meaning within the external world of language, there is always an absence in the field of meaning, an absence that corresponds to the lack of the object of desire: ‘This cut in the signifying chain alone verifies the structure of the sub­ject as discontinuity in the real’ (Lacan, 1977: 299). The real, in Lacan’s sense, has noth­ing to do with ‘reality’ as such; rather, it is what displaces what is commonly understood by reality. Our reality – the reality of our identities and our way of seeing the world – is fundamentally conditioned by symbolic and fantasy structures; and it is the real – that which cannot be integrated into these structures – which jeopardizes this reality, making our identities precarious and at times incoherent. The real is therefore the point at which these symbolic structures break down and the contingency of their operation is exposed. It may be seen as an irreducible void around which identity is both partially constituted and dislocated.

Thinking about the relationship between the real and reality in these terms has impor­tant consequences for any understanding of social and political relations. Lacan’s theory shows that not only is the subject lacking – in the sense described above – but also the external objective order of meaning, the Symbolic Order, is itself lacking and incom­plete; there is no Other of the Other (see Stavrakakis, 1999: 39). This means that ‘society’ itself can never be realized in its fullness, that social relations can never be grasped in their totality, precisely because of this structural void that interrupts the closure of mean­ing. This is why the Master’s discourse, which seeks to express the totality of social relations, fails – there is always an excess of meaning that escapes it. Here, however, the role of fantasy – particularly as it functions in ideological systems – is to obscure or cover over this void in meaning, to disavow the real, and to present an image of society as a graspable totality (see Zizek, 1989: 127). Fantasies, of course, function in all politi­cal discourses. Indeed, we might say that the fantasy of achieving some kind of social harmony – whether through the idea of the rationally functioning market, or through communist modes of organisation – coupled with the structural impossibility of achiev­ing this, is a dialectic of desire which continually produces new political identifications and renewed attempts to grasp social totality. As Stavrakakis says:

‘Our societies are never harmonious ensembles. This is only the fantasy through which they attempt to constitute and reconstitute themselves’ (1999: 74).

Thus, every revolutionary project of instituting a new society has to be seen as ultimately a utopian illusion.

Open spaces: politics and planning

The above conclusion would seem to have rather depressing consequences for radical politics. However, I shall propose instead that it leads to an opening up of new concep­tual spaces for political activity, while at the same time forcing us to re-think the notion of revolution as a totalising event. I shall say more about this later, but it is important to consider here the implications of Lacan’s theory not only for the conception of political space, but also for the practice of planning, which is also a form of political practice. Indeed, we could say at this point that Lacanian theory can lead to a certain radicalization – even ‘anarch-ization’ – of the discourse and practice of planning. For instance, the position of mastery implicit in most conceptions of planning would be exposed as an impotent gesture, one of absolute imposture, one, moreover, that is blind to its own fail­ings and to the social knowledge that eludes the planner, or the element of contingency, unpredictability and antagonism that simply cannot be planned for. As Michael Gunder says, planners (along with everyone else) “construct a shared social reality that creates illusions and fantasies of clarity and completeness that are readily acceptable, while somehow at the same time blindly overlooking, or at least not challenging, what is lacking and contradicting, so as to make like appear more readily predictable and stable” (2004: 302).

Furthermore, Lacanian theory allows us to perceive the utopian fantasies at work in
planning theory, particularly the fantasies of consensus in planning decisions. Here Jean Hillier uses the Lacanian notion of the real to problematize the idea that through a Habermasian-style process of rational communication – based around the fantasy of the ideal speech situation – planning decisions can be arrived at in a consensual and transpar­ent way, without the distortions of power, ideology and disagreement, in other words, of politics: ‘Deliberation is thus “a kind of purification”… which leads to consensus and certainty through critical reflection. Lacanians would argue that this is impossible’ (Hillier, 2003: 48). The real as the lack or void in discourse, preventing perfect and trans­parent communication, is therefore what disrupts this consensual model of decision-making in planning. It is not that the real makes consensus impossible, but rather that it forces us to question the assumption that consensus based on rational deliberation is the only legitimate model for planning or politics to follow.

What becomes apparent in this application of Lacanian theory, is a certain ‘anarchic’ displacement of the authority of planning discourse: not only is the Master’s gesture of epistemological authority exposed in all its impotence and imposture, but the claim to consensus – which is at heart simply another claim to mastery and authority in the guise of democratic and rational dialogue – is shown to be a utopian fiction.

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Αναρτήθηκε στις: 27/09/2011