. Hakim Bey: The Pessimism of Autonomy | Ceasefire Magazine

An A to Z of Theory | Hakim Bey: The Pessimism of Autonomy

In the latest essay in his series on Hakim Bey's work, Andrew Robinson examines the ideas in Bey's 1996 book Millennium and other writings since, and shows that, while Bey's work has become more pessimistic, it has retained its focus on autonomy.

Columns, In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, July 24, 2019 15:20 - 0 Comments

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“OUTSKIRTS” by atelier olschinsky is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Hakim Bey’s theoretical creativity did not end with the publication of TAZ, and he has continued to produce new contributions for those seeking autonomy in a changing strategic field. In this essay, the seventh in a series of sixteen columns on Bey’s work, I examine his contributions from the 1996 book Millennium onwards.

Millennium: a changed strategic field

The strategic concerns underpinning TAZ recede in Bey’s more recent work. In Millennium, written in 1996, Bey reverses his earlier critique of revolutionary politics. With communism no longer an issue, he refers to a need for ‘revolutionary presence’, pitted against the alienation and separation of capitalism. However, he insists that this presence should also value difference. For instance, he celebrates the Zapatistas for wishing to remain Mayans without making everyone Mayans. They assert the right to be different. They also act to expel power, rather than seize it, knowing the state could not destroy their zone, which was already depleted.

During the Cold War, anarchism took a position as a third alternative to capitalism and Stalinism. Today, there is no such possibility, as the second position has collapsed. This changed context thrusts anarchists into the position of being the opposition, the second pole. It forces Bey to rethink his previous criticisms of revolutionary politics. Bey argues that difference is the organic revolutionary response to capitalist sameness, or monoculture. Bey sees ‘tribal’ or communal differences becoming increasingly precious as sites of difference from capitalism. Often, such differences are recuperated as spectacle, customs, consumption options and so on. However, ‘organic integral difference’ becomes revolutionary today. There is thus a choice between a hegemonic particularity – integrated into neoliberalism – and an anti-hegmonic particularity.

Bey now calls for an alliance of particularities. Today, any unassimilable difference is potentially revolutionary. Some remain reactionary, as ‘hegemonic particularities’ seeking control, whereas others become truly revolutionary ‘non-hegemonic particularities’. Both right and left rebel against the system’s total control, and they are now hard to tell apart. While encouraging non-hegemonic particularities, Bey also argues for the development of conviviality which communicates across ‘false boundaries’. The uniting factor among such particularities is ‘presence’, or overcoming alienation through intensity.

Bey proposes a federalism similar to Proudhon’s, between various particularities. In such a model, autonomy and federation are complementary rather than contradictory. The key principle of such a federation would be to recognise freedom at every level of organisation, even the smallest. This should not, however, be a federation of orthodoxies. Islam, for instance, includes a range of different views of the sacred, irreducible to orthodoxy or fundamentalism. It is the unorthodox and heretical variants which Bey seeks to bring together in a global networked struggle with other particularities. Indeed, Bey suggests that Islam is indispensable to a global anti-capitalist coalition.

For Bey, anarchism is anti-ideological. One shouldn’t care if someone else wishes to be a Mayan, Muslim, or rationalist, as long as one can secede and individual autonomy is safe. This creates a possibility for broad coalitions of groups excluded by capital, on the basis of mutual tolerance. Autonomous enclaves of different groups are to be linked through anarcho-federalism (Islam and Eugenics). Anarchism is the only movement capable of being taken seriously, in a post-ideological age. In Millennium, Bey also argues for the creation of spaces for artists outside the commodified world of art. These spaces would reaffirm creativity in everyday life. 

In the current period, contestation is intensified. Each zone either belongs to capital, or ends up in opposition. Whatever the system tries to destroy takes on an aura of life. Sometimes it differs from capitalism only by a hair’s breadth, but still this is enough to make it completely revolutionary, defying the rule of the one system. Bey likens this to the small distance in satori. Religion is faced with a choice of capitulation or revolt. Art, too, can survive only in opposition Nationalism is on a collision course with capitalism because capitalism has reduced nations to ‘zones of depletion’, and because capital is interested in nations only for instrumental reasons. This issue could go either right or left, depending on whether the nation as particularity is defined as hegemonic. Capital also begins to clash with remnants of social ideology in liberalism, conservatism, the UN, the EU and so on. Politics is reduced to ‘cognitive dissonance‘, as no ideology is really compatible with total capitalist rule. 

Hence, the ground for TAZ’s has disappeared. Third positions have been eliminated. Everything is now either capitulating, or opposing capitalism. Capital can now turn its attention to what it formerly had to ignore due to the bipolar conflict. It also no longer needs former allies, such as Christianity, or to make deals with social sectors. It formerly needed allies in its fight against socialism or the Soviet bloc. Today, it reverses the deals it made with Northern labour movements and other allies. Everything becomes disposable. Regions of the North can be turned into regions of the South through capital flight. Any particular region, class, profession, sexuality, or attitude might be the next to be disposed of. For privileged people, however, the choice is between capitulation on comfortable terms and reinventing opposition. TAZs retain a strategic role, but the goal is now to extend them into permanent autonomous zones, which coalesce into the ‘millennium’ or new world. 

Autonomy as such is now criminalised. Bey discusses the cases of MOVE and the Waco siege, and argues that both groups were attacked by the state because they wanted to be autonomous. The fact that people just want to ‘be weird – by themselves‘, or be a group on their own terms, outrages consensus reality. Sociologically, millions of people from many backgrounds are dissatisfied. But they tend to be invisible, because they don’t vote or work in the formal sector. The middle-class is shrinking, which creates dangers of fascism and populism.

Neoliberalism claims there is only one world. Money is free within this one world. However, in practice, it divides the world into included and excluded zones, zones of security and zones of depletion, in which it sucks away all life-energy. Instead of clashing ideologies, there is now capital, on one side, and what it excludes, on the other. By declaring itself the one world – the only alternative – capital has called into being its nemesis. This nemesis is the last-ditch defence of everything that cannot become part of global capitalism. Bey suggests that the opposition that emerges in such a context will be profoundly influenced by the ‘Clastrian machine‘, particularly shamanism. This machine will attack exchange itself, and promote reciprocity and generosity. He also suggests that power vaccuums will appear in zones depleted and evacuated by capital, providing radical possibilities. This analysis also implies that transgression and the critique of binaries are no longer effective approaches to resistance. Without bipolar categories – with the system operating as oneness instead of binary – there is nothing to transgress. There is only capitulation or opposition.

In ‘Islam and the Internet‘, Bey argues that there is a need for embodied resistance. We need something like an ideology, and we need to clarify (but not purify) language. Communication needs to be reconstructed as ‘communicativeness’. By this, Bey means that communication should be festive, dialogical, pleasurable, warm, and linked to desire – rather than being abstract and mediated. Bey also calls for a spirituality of and for the body, and a re-enchantment of the world. 

Certain types of movements are partially resistant, but also problematic. Fundamentalism spearheads resistance to capitalist capitulation. But by closing the doors of interpretation, it represses the desire for difference and prevents the emergence of a fully-fledged critique of capitalism. Mafias are a kind of shadow government which emerges from the degeneration of the Pastoral Code (Clastres’s view of indigenous warfare) in struggle against the state. 

In ‘The Obelisk‘, Bey argues that resistance movements since the rise of centralised power are based on the gift economy, which preceded this rise. This is less clear today than in the past. But Bey suggests that today’s movements still seek ’empirical freedoms’ defined by the economy of the gift – freedoms such as the absence of oppression, conviviality, bodily or spiritual pleasure, peace, plenty, equality, and so on. These same values appear in immemorial ‘rights and customs’, in the politics of desire, and in movements such as tactical media.

Green Hermeticism and the Last Possible Outside

From 2004 onwards, Bey has been increasingly interested in ecology as the site of altered consciousness. He has developed the idea of ‘Green Hermeticism’ as a potential philosophical matrix for ecology. He has also written a series of ecologically inflected works, such as Riverpeople and Ec(o)logues. Such works combine intense appreciation for local ecological sites with Bey’s older themes of mysticism, autonomy, disalienation, altered consciousness, and alternative history.

Other recent works have a more pessimistic tone. In Escape from the Nineteenth Century, Bey suggests that the present feels as if history has stopped, and we are trapped in the ruins of time. In ‘Seduction of the Cyber Zombies‘, Bey suggests that a desperate global war is coming, between global capital and a worldfull of individuals and groups. The best we can hope is that it be a peaceful war, like Sorel’s General Strike. But we should prepare for the worst. In another piece, Bey predicts that the situation will become very ugly when capital is finally opposed.

If one finds oneself in a zone of depletion, or No Go Zone, one’s prospects for autonomy increase with the withdrawal of power into the virtual. Such zones are unlikely to be able to assert political autonomy. However, there are possibilities for freedom in everyday life. Today, such zones are already vacuums of control, but mostly suffer ‘negative chaos’. To become emancipatory sites, they need to be filled with ‘positive chaos’. Such possibilities depend on an appropriate model of the economy and the social. Bey suggests this might operate as a kind of borderless bricolage, a ‘melange of whatever works’. Technology is likely to be low-tech and ad-hoc, but ‘more human than green’. It should be constructed to resist hierarchy through each person’s will to power. Failure may be the last refuge from the ‘Capitalist heaven‘ of simulation. One can at least be a beautiful spirit doomed to fail, rather than an ugly one.

In periods of defeat, the most pressing issue is survival as a trace or remnant, to be recovered later. Following the Anabaptists after their defeat, Wilson argues that, if the world cannot be saved (through revolution), at least a ‘saving remnant‘ can withdraw into intentional communities based on pleasure. In a poem, ‘Failure as the Last Possible Outside’, Bey writes of a future in which entire nations are enclosed as ‘literal garbage dumps’, but are secretly inhabited by outcasts and bricoleurs. Even in the darkest dystopia, Bey creates hope of an outside, an autonomous zone. 

Whatever slips past panoptical surveillance, perhaps because it seems futile, becomes the basis for this zone. In this poem, Bey appeals to the ‘paradoxical productivity of all that refuses to be computed, that which “doesn’t count”‘. Rebels disguise themselves as outcasts to slip through the cracks in the Empire. In another poem, ‘Herm’, he incites us to live like ‘Them’, the tri-racial isolates, as ‘rebels against progress’, as if with ‘bad genes’.

In one poem, he suggests that, if our pagan deities have gone silent, we should do the same, and withdraw to a monastic or druidic site. He also refers in this era to ‘endarkenment’, or reversal of Enlightenment. This is another term for altered consciousness, this time associated with low-technology, low-mediation forms of life – such as, in one poem, ‘flyfishing while under the Influence’. We cannot become ‘innocent’ or ‘primitive’, but we can still ‘fall in love with the beauty of the Earth as a sign of divinity’. Recognising the archetype of ‘Perfect Nature’ in actual nature might be an illusion. But it is a necessary, creative error. It creates possibilities for altered consciousness. 

Discussion of TAZ

In some ways, it is unsurprising that Bey is more pessimistic today than previously. The idea of TAZ seems to stem from a particular conjuncture. Bey’s theory stems from the fraying of the world-system in the 1980s and 1990s. As capital withdrew from vast zones and the Fordist control-mechanisms broke down, areas fell out of systemic control. The state collapsed in Somalia and Afghanistan, gangs took control of shanty-towns, secessionist movements seized control of regions. Only a few of these (such as Chiapas) became autonomous zones with emancipatory projects. Nevertheless, the fraying of the system provided hope for autonomists and anarchists worldwide.

Things have changed somewhat in the 2000s. The system continues to fray around the edges, with ‘black holes‘ emerging in its power-structure. But increasingly these emergent autonomous zones are shut down, pre-empted, or militarised. Intensified control is eliminating or shrinking the spaces the system cannot see, at least within countries like the UK. With GIS, Google Maps, GPS systems, personalised laws and data mining, the gap between map and territory is growing ever narrower. What is more, the system is remodelling the territory to fit the map ever more closely. I would speculate that the state has found ways of seeing TAZs, firstly by defining anything it cannot predict as a threat, and secondly by focusing its gaze more closely on each micro-element of space and life.

Another possible issue with TAZ is the apparent necessity of an adversary, so as to keep it temporary. In early pieces (like TAZ and ‘The Criminal Bee’), Bey tends towards the position that laws and oppression are necessary, to provide a target for rebellion. He seems to abandon this position in his more recent work. Is a permanent TAZ even thinkable? I think it would be possible to have a kind of society in which peak experience is the ultimate value, without requiring a repressive regime as a challenge to overcome. But it couldn’t be based on conflictual action-spaces of the kind seen in activism. The closest analogue are certain indigenous groups in which intergroup conflict and intense ritual experiences are common. The utopian work Bolo’Bolo provides an image of something akin to a society of permanent TAZs.

The idea of failure as the last possible outside sounds pessimistic compared to Bey’s earlier work. However, the emphasis on disappearance is continuous. If capitalism claims to be a unitary world, yet excludes zones which cannot be commodified, then failure and autonomy go together. Knight suggests that Bey speaks as if his generation were the last one with a chance at revolution, as well as at overseas adventures.

The TAZ concept is often used to interpret aspects of 1990s counterculture, particularly raves. In a video, Bey lists as examples of TAZ-like phenomena such events as neo-pagan festivals, rainbow camps, ‘open conspiracies’ such as Queer Nation, raves, collaborative art events, anarchist collectives, intentional communities, secret societies, and even drug dealing. These gatherings attempt to realise enjoyment, or ‘passional series’, in everyday life. Many groups fail to realise the depth of their threat to the spectacle, use the media, and end up recuperated. Political groups have mainly failed to master pleasure, and lifestyle groups to grasp politics.

Benjamin Noys lists TAZ as one of a number of recent approaches emphasising the role of space in liberation. Simon Sellars refers to ‘Reclaim the Streets’ occupations, raves, and occasions where protesters overrun police, as instances of TAZ. He also surveys a list of academic pieces which refer to TAZ in relation to themes such as popular culture, Critical Mass, areas of Deaf culture defined by sign language, Stonehenge, camping, hip-hop, and various Black, women’s, and gay/queer spaces. Williams uses a similar example of the Fare Dodgers’ Liberation Front, who held parties on London Underground stations to protest and subvert fare rises. Jeff Shantz sees Bey’s work as an inspiration for the formation of anarchist social centres in 1990s America. Sellars suggests that the idea of TAZ became widespread, but without a definite meaning. It had general connotations of anarchy and freedom, but was not always understood in Bey’s sense. This led to criticisms, such as Zerzan’s depiction of the term as ‘hip posturing’. Similarly, Geert Lovink has observed that TAZ is taken out of its political and cultural context in recuperated forms of cyberculture. 

Williams suggests that TAZ, and some of Bey’s other concepts, tend to be ‘empty signifiers‘: They have so many meanings and uses that they lack a definite meaning. He also draws the conclusion from Bey that fulfilment never comes, that a little enlightenment is better than none. He argues that Bey ultimately arrives at the conclusion that anarchism is unattainable. Instead, he seeks to make the current world a bit more anarchist. However, I’d suggest that there’s a core qualitative reference to intensity and disalienation which provides a core of meaning to such concepts.

It is true that Bey is sometimes strategically pessimistic. He is not confident that we can reach emancipation from the strategic options available today. However, he has a clear transformative perspective in which the ultimate goal is a society integrated by passion, operating as something like a permanent TAZ. Enlightenment is not an absent goal which never comes. Enlightenment means altered consciousness, which is a lived alternative.

Bey does not simply try to make the world a bit better. He has an antagonistic orientation to a dominant system, conceived as a ‘totality’ or Spectacle. Far from becoming more pessimistic with time, Bey becomes more revolutionary after the collapse of ‘communism’. He feels a need for uncompromising opposition to a system which accepts only full capitulation. On this question, I believe Bey is right, and Williams is wrong. The Gramscian strategy of fighting in the ‘trenches and fieldworks‘ of a complex society is increasingly ineffective in a ‘joined-up‘, high-speed, low-tolerance form of capitalism. The system’s demand for total capitulation makes it impossible to make the world a bit better – especially from a standpoint inside it. Today, even the most reformist demands seem to require a near-revolution to succeed. Those who give up on revolution, and use their included position to seek small reforms, will have to settle for less and less. 

Despite all the changes since 1991, TAZs still exist. The ZAD in France is an archetypal TAZ. There are also shades of the TAZ in Tahrir Square, Gezi Park and Occupy, though they are oriented to visibility rather than invisibility. Social movement-controlled spaces in autonomous communities in Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, South Africa and so on are arguably a variety of TAZ. Authors such as Graeber argue that autonomous zones continue to exist invisibly in areas such as rural Madagascar. The most effective TAZ’s, almost by definition, will be invisible to us, too. Yet the regulation of everyday life, and the extension of surveillance and repression to post-TAZ spaces, are rendering it harder to alternate TAZ with ordinary life. This, in turn, creates a need for something more permanent. Arguably, the possibility of TAZ relies on the semi-permanence of everyday practices of resistance, such as squatting, countercultural events, festival circuits and so on. If the everyday is too regulated, it becomes harder to carve a TAZ from the everyday.

There are strange echoes between Bey’s Millennium – the system versus anything that cannot be englobed – and the liberal idea of ‘Jihad vs McWorld‘ (except in the latter case, the dominant system is valued). The main difference is that Bey conceives opposition mainly in terms of autonomous movements expressing powerful affirmative passions. In ‘Jihad Revisited‘, Bey rejects the idea of any similarity between his dream of a neo-Sufi Islamic Zapatismo and the rise of ‘Islamism’. Bey has little sympathy for the anti-fun, anti-Sufi orthodoxy of groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda. He sees it as a ‘simulation’, a false conflict between the Spectacle and a self-defined energy which is not really anti-systemic. This leads to a fake conflict between ‘democracy’, meaning coca-colonisation, and ‘Islam’, taken to mean ’emotional plague’ (Reich’s term for psychological repression). ‘Islamism’ cannot negate Empire because it is itself based on negation and resentment. In a later interview, Bey suggests their limit is shown by their lack of a critique of capital, and an economic model he considers fascistic. Such groups are only able to gain popular support in countries like Afghanistan – with a rich tradition of everyday enjoyment – as a lesser evil in a context of absolute destruction. 

Bey here attempts to grapple with what I elsewhere discuss as ‘reactive networks’. Reactive networks lead to a certain ambiguity, because they clearly create autonomous zones (relative to capital), but these zones do not incarnate the affects Bey seeks. Indeed, the proliferating revolutionary oppositions of anything that cannot be incorporated are expressed just as much in reactive movements (e.g. ISIS, Boko Haram, Mungiki, gangs of various kinds) as in autonomous movements. This complicates the picture of ‘system vs autonomous particularities’ considerably. Anarchism and other radical positions (Marxism, pacifism, feminism, etc) seem to be back in the position of a ‘third’, but in a context where the system still defines itself as the one world and treats difference as enmity. 

Another possible difficulty with TAZ is that it identifies excess with abundance. This is a strategic response to scarcity-based dynamics, but creates difficulties in the current context. Is it possible to be paralysed by excess, as well as by lack? Berardi claims so, and suggests that contemporary capitalism has recuperated 1960s-wave revolt in this way. People are now exposed to attentive stress due to an excess of information and stimulation. Native American therapist Lewis Mehl-Madrona makes similar claims. He suggests that, without forms of meaning to provide purpose, chaos is paralysing and anxiety-inducing.

However, such critiques do not seriously problematise Bey’s argument. Bey is not saying that we should do without existential attachments or meanings. He is saying that meanings are rooted in desire, which is accentuated in altered states of consciousness. The tenuous construction of personal meanings may be the last structuring force possible in a world of information overload. In any case, intensity can be experienced as euphoric rather than overwhelming, given certain conditions. Much of Bey’s theory seems designed to produce these conditions. Bey also observes that information excess can lead to darkness rather than enlightenment – a ‘lite age‘ in Bey’s terms. The problem is that the excess is itself mediated and de-intensified.

For the other essays in the series, please visit the In Theory column page.

Editor’s note: With regards to Hakim Bey’s controversial personal stances, these will be discussed in Part 10 of this series. In the meantime, please read our ‘Note to readers’ at the end of the introductory essay of the series.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.

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