Overthrowing Institutions

On the hopeless but effective insurrection of having no power whatsoever

What if activists and organizers are so concerned with building the best carriage they have failed to notice their horses have already fled?

Many people believe it is possible to win a good and just society by organizing a counter-power to change status quo institutions. But when was the last time you heard any convincing argument or up-to-date evidence that this is still the case? Almost everyone who still holds this belief does so as an assumption inherited from some previous era of struggle.1 Many people will frankly admit they hold this belief simply because it is necessary to have hope against all odds, but this is wrong: it is necessary to know what is really the case, and anyway, a truthful renunciation of hope is both more joyful and more politically effective than an empirically implausible hope. While many, many people have been trying for a very long time to organize counter-power on the assumption that it exists and only has to be organized, very few people will even consider the idea that total defeat is a possibility, let alone that it may have already happened.2

What if activists and organizers are so concerned with building the best carriage they have failed to notice their horses have already fled?

First of all, if this were the case, there are two reasons we almost certainly would not yet have realized it. The first is that the information revolution has increased the speed of all state and corporate operations much more drastically and much earlier than it did so for any of us. So even if state-corporate domination was officially cemented thirty years ago, it’s perfectly possible we would not yet have received the memo.

The second reason, an endemic pitfall of all activism, is that to grow even a modest movement requires appealing to people, and appealing to people requires activists to peddle hope and optimism despite any changes in the objective conditions warranting hope and optimism. If anything, objective decreases in the conditions for hope lead activists to increase their messages of hope in compensation. It is built into the DNA of traditional “strategic” activism to not honestly update its messaging based on changes in empirical reality. If one takes these two considerations seriously, one begins to see how so many of the activist truisms handed down since the first modern trade unions in the late 19th century are laced with dishonesty and compose a picture of the world no less erroneous for the good intentions of its painters.

The fact is that our “popular” power to control the institutions which govern our lives is now contained, channelled, and otherwise exhausted by political and economic institutions more completely than ever before in the history of the world. On one side we have the global super-rich who move freely and untouchably above all nation states. On the other side, we have the actual human beings of the world who are increasingly overworked, anxious, depressed, frustrated, self-loathing, mistrustful, unequally divided by race, gender, and diverse other categories, locked into the most sophisticated police states ever designed and, despite all of this, on the whole, more zealously invested in the mundane fascism of this everyday life than we were even thirty years ago. In such a fully pacified and one-dimensional world, the idea of organizing and outsmarting the pilots of dominant institutions on the plane of power is a delusional narcissistic fantasy working from a cheap tourist map of political history. I fully affirm the desire and possibility of outsmarting the pilots of dominant institutions, but not by competing upon the very plane which has already been conclusively vanquished.

The next best move in the world history of resistance is at once obvious and difficult to parse. If you lose a game of chess because your opponent moved extra pieces while you weren’t looking, but the cheater is not disqualified because they’re buddies with the referee, what do you? According to the official record, reality, you are a loser but you know that you did not truly lose. So what do you do? Maybe you ask the audience to lobby the referee so they can get their false defeats changed also. While some agree with you, they don’t have the energy for a fight, and the rest just point to the record and correctly say the reality is you lost.

So what do you do? Because governments within capitalism cannot over-regulate all behavior, there are lots of contexts in which you have no power but can still act creatively without imprisonment. This is perhaps the Achille’s heel of liberal capitalism. In this case, since it’s just a chess game and nobody yet gets arrested for poor board-game etiquette, what you do is turn over the table, maniacally excoriate everybody in the room, and leave laughing in a blaze of useless opposition. Not because you have some kind of secret micro-power with which to challenge the referee’s, and not to build a movement to overpower the referee, but precisely because you know the recorded reality is false and unjust but you desire to live truly despite neither you nor anyone in the audience having the power to do so. Then, only as a by-product of you risking yourself on what you know to be true, lo and behold, on your sad and lonely walk home, a few people from the audience run up to you because they thought what you did was weird and funny and vaguely cool and at the very least not boring.

And you all plan to stay in touch and meet again, and then you start to drift from those old “friends” in the audience who agreed with your frustration but hung their head in shame when you had the nerve to think a silly chess match was a place for life to take place. Then you finally realize that for those people, for the entire audience that is most of society, there is no situation in which it is ever appropriate for life to truly take place, and the only sense of life you ever feel is with those few, new friends you made in your fall from the audience of appropriateness. Then each of you begins to follow up with anyone else who is falling from appropriateness in favor of making life take place. In this way, without going to any bullshit meetings or following any supposedly strategic catechism, only by directly increasing the truth and joy of your life, you find yourself as part of a collective movement at war with everything that is false and unjust. That sad need for hope which is characteristic of activist entrepreneurs vanishes at the point one sets off on the real process of becoming who one is.

This is the only model of activism in any context where institutional domination is so advanced that “organizing” justice seems impossible. Instead of building carriages for an empty stable of horses, we should rather just become horses.

In this fashion, despite the absolute absence of power to change status quo institutions, whatever life still exists inside the dead inertia of the institutional spectacle can find itself and become a collective life-form while the putrid carcasses of the institutions, however much we may remain locked inside of them, can nonetheless be forgotten and left to rot. Although the representatives of the institutions will incorrectly believe they have all the power, this time it is they who will be duped before they even realize it: for despite the continued domination of institutions, everyone will have simply evacuated the plane of their power for ours, the plane of true life.

Of course, dynamics such as these are often killed by a variety of other pacifying pressures emitted by the institutions. Work, debt, bills, certain idiot friends and family members, the general inertia of “path dependence”, all make it hard to fully follow through on such ruptures in the social fabric as that which graced our chess player, those opportunities where one could maybe dodge down some completely new set of relationships, energies, and collective forms-of-life. But that is in large part because we don’t currently see such momentary ruptures for what they truly are, the microscopic but real stuff of which world-historical insurrections can be made. We currently don’t dodge down such paths of becoming because we incorrectly think we have so much to lose within the institutions (all of our status quo investments, typically most of our whole lives’ meanings) and very little confidence that such a risky move would be sensible or coherent, let alone constitutive of a real process of collective liberation.3 In all works such as this little volume of writings, and anytime you and others publicly choose truth and joy over lying and dying, we decrease the hold of status quo fears by increasing the reality of life beyond the institutions.

And with every minor, daily victory of joy over death, we gain a few extra resources—if only of energy—which can be spent on deflecting the pacifying pressures which crush our friends. And we will continue to devise new and different life-forms specifically suited to chip away at these pacifying pressures, lowering the threshold at which others will find it possible to initiate their own liberatory defections and inventions.

The goal here is not to build a theoretical system or a social movement but to demonstrate the theoretically and empirically valid political consequences of certain everyday life options, in order to increase the confidence and frequency with which I and others take the risks necessary to construct collective life amid the institutional deaths we are all currently suffering. As for “unifying” or “organizing,” there is no need; anyone who travels down this path will find each other in the end, not out of some “strategic” catechism some social movement expert wants us to recite, but simply because by doing what actually works to increase truth and joy against the institutions, we will all by definition be moving toward the same destination, only from inherently different and complicated starting points.

  1. I do not believe I have ever seen or heard anyone even try to justify this belief while accounting for all of the various ways in which the distribution of power has shifted against the majority of people in the past several decades. I am thinking of the information revolution, globalization, inequality, and rising levels of mistrust, depression, anxiety, and social anomie, among many other empirical facts awareness of which makes the average activist meeting today feel like live-action role-playing inside of a mausoleum.

  2. I blame that vulgar Foucauldianism which serves at once as apology and consolation for submission by casting it as future subversion waiting in the wings, but that would deserve another discussion entirely.

  3. Movies produced by status quo institutions mock this type of vision as symptomatic of naive childishness or mid-life crises, representing this type of life-changing rupture toward greater freedom as empty fantasy which never amounts to anything real, but the only reason such desires rarely come to anything in real life is only because status quo culture mocks these desires. It is precisely by this kind of circular process that status quo institutions prevent the contagious multiplication of radically creative and dangerous life-forms: to prove that radical deviations from the mainstream are naive and impossible, their only evidence is the vast sea of souls who have become deadened by this repeated, false assertion.

Cite this post: RIS Citation BibTeX Entry

Murphy, Justin. 2015. "On the hopeless but effective insurrection of having no power whatsoever," http://jmrphy.net/blog/2015/05/04/the-insurrection-of-having-no-power/ (April 24, 2017).