Last week (May 17-23, 2021) I gave a lecture on violence and social movements at an event organized by a collective from the Department of Law and Political Science at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. In that lecture I argued that violence has a structuring dimension that precludes reducing it to pure instrumentality. Violence structures subjectivities, social relations, territories, forms of life and collective actions. Consequently, violence can distort the meaning of a protest, especially when agents who are external to the protest take advantage of it. Two days ago (May 25th) I was contacted by three young activists from Cali’s “points of resistance” (puntos de resistencia); one of them studied at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and is currently finishing his degree at the Universidad del Valle, the other two, a woman and a man, survive through taking on odd jobs (rebusque). They told me: “although we did not understand everything that you said, we think that we are partially in agreement, but we would like to clarify one thing. We are the children of violence. We have grown up amid violence. We are not only talking about the violence of hunger, which is also violence, but the violence of the gangs, the paramilitaries, the guerrilla, the police, the military, the robbers, the thieves, the violence that you all call micro-traffic, and the violence that our mothers and sisters face in our houses. We are neither ‘good law-abiding’ citizens (personas ‘de bien’), nor ‘respectful’ persons (gente ‘sana’) wearing white shirts.4In the city of Cali, a sector of the upper class that rejects the strike and self-identifies as “good law-abiding citizens” (personas de bien), wears white shirts. Some of them are armed and have joined the police in repressing the protests in the streets, none have yet been brought to justice. [Trans.] We know that violence has ‘marked’ us, we are migrants from the countryside, forcefully displaced; but we are not ‘cats’ who have suddenly discovered violence.5“Cats” (gatos) is a pejorative way of referring to working-class young people as immature and powerless. [Trans.] There is desperate ‘strife’ (‘cólicos’) in our communities. Because of that, we do not want to return to the violence into which the government and the ruling class of this country want to confine us. The points of resistance are the safest places in our cities. We try to control the violence during the strike, but when they shoot at us, torture, and rape us too, violence sprouts from even the most peaceful bodies. We are trying to justify nothing. We are only trying to tell you that we are made of violence and yet, that we continue to resist and want to overcome that violence, but it is very hard to do so in this shitty society.”
The New Proletariat, or the Multitude in Precarious Conditions
The 2021 protests share a common element that distinguish them from other prior protests, except perhaps the ones that took place in 2019. Groups participate in these protests that are so heterogeneous that they have defied sociologists’ ability to characterize them by some shared element, for example as salaried workers, or by a social or cultural habitus. The general strike has brought together social and political actors as different and as heterogenous as unemployed young people, students, wage-workers, neighbors, women who take active part in all aspects of the protest (not just in tasks related to care), professors, teachers, artists of all kinds, peasants, indigenous peoples, informal workers, political activists, NGO officials, doctors, nurses, and so on. Amidst such heterogeneity, what brings them together is a negation.
Such a negation refers to the social damage or pathology that condemns most Colombians to a condition of mere survival so that a small minority can build their well-being on the discontent and labor of the majority. The perception of those who protest in the street is clear: they are not protesting against a single reform or policy; they are protesting because for decades they have been enduring unbearable conditions; because the horizons of livability for the youth continue to shrink; because unremunerated labor will force them to work into old age, or depend on their families for survival; because a mother whose child is on the front line (primera línea) of the protest must pick up odd jobs in order to survive;6Primeras líneas, literally “first lines,” is a tactic being used in the current protest, in which the youth form a line of defense around the protest to defend it from the seemingly inevitable violence at the hands of the police. This tactic thus protects the democratic right to protest in the streets, which though constitutionally protected, is constantly under threat. [Trans]. because poorly paid domestic labor is not even enough for these workers to feed their families, thus forcing them to go into informal work as well; because in the face of an already inadequate wage that barely covers the costs of living, workers wince at how the tax reform will increase their grocery bill; because the new generation of workers see that they must save more and more money to pay taxes to a state plagued by corruption and impunity.
As Andrés Felipe Parra says in his analysis of Karl Marx’s “Contributions to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” (1843) and The German Ideology (1846), from the limited perspective of productive relations of material life, this rather diverse set of human beings condemned to mere survival would be the proletariat.7Andrés Felipe Parra, La clase que no es una clase: Acción política y emancipación. PhD Thesis (Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2016). That is to say, “a class that is not a class,” a social group that is only defined by a negation, as it represents a form of life based on survival, upon which the rest of society organizes itself. Looking beyond productive relations, today we could also think of this group as a multitude living under precarious conditions. Current social relations and the corresponding forms of political organization lead many to confront—intellectually and affectively—imminent death as an everyday reality. Life itself is permanently exposed, vulnerable to loss, and today many consider the pandemic a lesser risk compared to the social pathology that throws them into a struggle for mere survival.
An activist in one of the points of resistance says the following: “before, we were nobodies; now, for the first time we are somebodies beside each other in the streets, where we even sleep undisturbed—except for when we are attacked by the police or by armed ‘good law-abiding citizens.’ Behind the barricades, you’ll find the popular assemblies and the communal potlucks, thanks to which some have access to three meals a day (los tres golpes) for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.”8“Golpes,” literally “hits,” is a popular way of referring to meals that denotes the inseparability of sustenance from struggles. [Trans]. Another shares the following reflection with students from my Theories of Power undergraduate course: “the country exploded in their faces. They have not yet realized that we have no hope and that because of that, we will continue to take to the streets.”
A Counter-Insurgent Apparatus
Feeling and thinking about the limits of survival, as is happening today in Colombia, generates the singular and collective desire for a life worth living. The heterogenous struggles for other forms of life, from such a diversity of actors, have also broken the accepted logics of action within the existing social order in the country. In reaction, the state has adopted a new approach to counter-insurgency, based in the thought of Chilean entomologist and publicist Alexis López. López was plucked from obscurity when the ex-president, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, mentioned him approvingly, after he was invited to the Universidad Militar of Colombia (Military University).9The controversy over Aléxis López’s role in the Colombian military increased when his active role in neo-Nazi organizations in Chile was made public. [Trans]. The contradictory and theoretically inconsistent doctrine referred to as “molecular dissipated revolution” (“revolución molecular disipada”), would have been irrelevant, a mere curious object of Latin American neo-Nazi thought, had it not been used as the springboard for the counter-insurgency apparatus employed against the general strike. It has already accumulated a staggering number of human rights violations. According to INDEPAZ (Institute for the Study of Development and Peace) and the NGO Temblores (Earthquakes), by May 7th more than 50 extra-judicial killings, 12 rapes, and 548 enforced disappearances had already been reported.
“Molecular dissipated revolution,” presumably inspired in the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, assumes the existence of a great insurgent movement against the normality of Colombian institutions. According to this doctrine, a vanguard has organized this movement from the shadows, successfully giving it an anarchic façade when it is, in reality, a horizontal, molecular and dissipated civil war whose main objective is to overthrow the legitimately elected government in order to replace it with a socialist or communist dictatorship. This interpretative apparatus is not only inconsistent but also contradictory. López and his Colombian followers are unable to understand the ways in which the vertical organization they envision in response to the strike, entirely contradicts the kind of molecular revolution theorized by Deleuze and Guattari who, they otherwise claim, inspired the doctrine. By reducing the molecular to the micro-political, the doctrine erases Deleuze and Guattari’s materialist understanding of desire as a productive drive, which is the conatus, the immanent force of a subversive power that articulates itself around diversity and multiplicity, rather than in an organization established on a prior and shared identity.
However, the internal coherence of this approach has little significance when compared to the 2021 strike. What matters is the new counter-insurgency apparatus articulated by means of this doctrine into a new war machine. Through this ideological device, constitutionally protected public protests are transformed into bellicose acts, protesters into enemies who must be eliminated either physically or symbolically, and repression into an instrument that allows the state to perform lethal micro-surgeries in the streets of Colombia. The ideological blindness caused by this machine does not allow it to understand that the more the people are reduced to a condition of mere survival, the more decided, prolonged, and perhaps even violent the resistance will be. But it is also possible that this ideology works as a pair of blinders, making the state see the state of exception as the sole political solution to the crisis of legitimacy that grows ever-more acute.