Critique of Swarm – Part 2

“The outraged do not form a stable we who are displaying concern for society as a whole. Enraged citizens, even though they are citizens, do not demonstrate concern for the whole of social body so much as for themselves. For this reason, outrage quickly dissipates.” (7)


Is the essence of political structure in liberal society effectively or ideally constituted by a discursive space that shapes a “concern for the society as a whole?” Han’s concern for the problems of capitalism ignore latent conflicts of interest that will intensify of their own accord by presupposing an adequate mediation through personal presence – “Bearing, a measured stance, is what constitutes the civil sphere” (7) – that is distorted through technological advance. It is not that society already has integral problems and conflicts which its very structure will necessarily repress, instead there have emerged technical distortions that have ruined what could have been otherwise “worked out” politically within the social-political structure as it is. It may be the case that movements driven by outrage are ineffective and superfluous: “Waves of outrage mobilize and bundle attention very efficiently. However, their fluidity and volatility make them unsuited to shaping public discourse or public space. They are too uncontrollable, incalculable, inconstant, ephemeral, and amorphous for that. They well up abruptly – and they dissipate just as soon. They are like smart mobs. They lack the stability, constancy, and continuity that are indispensable for civil exchange.” (7) However, should the problematic of our current political situation merely be one of exchange, or is the problem be that such mobs cannot constitute a consistent body of demands and interests that can hold a position and endure conflict? Discourse will be necessary insofar as it can serve interest and provide support, but discourse cannot be itself the foundation of changing the whole of society which divides groups into class distinctions and whose contradictions are integral to these distinctions. Han contrasts outrage with rage: “Rage, in the strong sense, is more than an affective state. It means the capacity, or power, to interrupt existing conditions and bring about new ones. In this way, it produces the future.”(8) This rage appears radical, it is the opposition, but it is opposition as pressure upon the civil society, the discursive project which appears through the division of everyday life and political affairs.

The constitution of a “civil society” – and a “citizenry” – is taken for granted and made eternal, backwards and forewords, with its only threat being decomposition through the swarm. The historical contingency of civil affairs and forms of state is ignored. We might think of several criticisms Marx leveled in his early writings at Hegel’s description of the State and civil society:     

“The very fact that ‘the civil laws depend on the specific character of the state’ and that they are modified in accordance with it is therefore subsumed under the relationship of ‘external necessity’ just because ‘civil society and the family’ in their true, i.e. their autonomous and complete, development are the special ‘spheres’ which form the premises of the state.” (60)     

“The family and civil society appear as the dark ground of nature from which the light of the state is born. By ‘material of the state’ we are to understand the functions of the state, namely the family and civil society in so far as they form parts of the state and participate as such in the state. […] The family and civil society are conceived as conceptual spheres of the state, indeed as the spheres of its finite phase, as its finite phase. It is the state that is sundered into them and presupposes them.” (61)     

“It is self-evident that when particular activities and agencies are designated the activities and agencies of the state, state activities and state powers, they are not private property but state property. […] The activities and agencies of the state are bound to individuals (the state is effective only through individuals), but not to the individual conceived as a physical being, only as a being of the state; they are bound to the state-like qualities of the individual…” (77)     

“The political constitution has always functioned as the religious sphere, the religion of the life of the people, the heaven of its universality as opposed to the earthly existence of its actual reality… because politics was opposed to all other spheres, its content too became formal and particular. Political life in the modern sense is the scholasticism of the life of the people.”(89-90) 

[Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of State in Early Writings (London: Penguin Books, 1992).]

Han laments the disintegration of acting groups, but he doesn’t carry through with any observation on the loss of a power which would act to remove the abstractions of the contemporary situation contained in the distinguished sphere of “civil society.” Because within civil society recognition of the real individual comes from the discursive recognition of the “state-like qualities of the individual” then any conflict that operates only to achieve recognition from actually existing civil society is only to achieve recognition through those same abstracted qualities. Therefore, in such a critique as one of “swarm,” any and all possibility of the expression and demand of the individual is transformed into an atomized “outraged citizen.” The failure of the contemporary abstractions to allow for individual demand and singularity is transformed into a perpetual failure of individuality and demand so expressed in a potentially different formation where democracy advances beyond the prearranged spheres of contemporary civil society, family, and state. A democracy not of majority domination, but of individual expression and demand.

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