Subset of Theoretical Practice

HomeBlogLinksAbout STPContact Us
Our Work
Atlas of Experimental PoliticsWorking Through Political OrganizationContribution to the Critique of Political OrganizationA Primer on Political Phenomenology
Syndicate *
RSS /Atom

Report for the "Militant and Activist Research around the World" Workshop

18 March 2023

Report for the Militant and Activist Research around the World Workshop - Session 1: "More than one, less than two: militant research and its discontents"

Note: this short report about STP's work was written by Gabriel Tupinambá for the international workshop that took place in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, between March 6th and 10th.

The basic premise we would like to explore in this session is that political activity does not only address social contradictions, but itself produces contradictions. Militancy and activism place us in "more than one world, but less than two" because political practice intensifies the conflict between social reproduction and social transformation, between the things we need to do to get by and the things we need to do so that, one day, people do not need to "get by" anymore. This requires everyone who engages politically to take on new tasks, new commitments, new habits – to orient ourselves by something more than our current world – but it does not deliver us another situation, a different context or set of consequences – we are nevertheless stuck in the present and need to accommodate these additional commitments within the same regular social constraints: we are stuck with less than another world.

Militant research is no exception to this general political impasse. Though varying in degree and emphasis, the commitment to militant research invariably produces new contradictions between our professional and political commitments, between the demands of theoretical rigor and the demands of political equality – not to say of the contradiction of turning the political ends of others into the means of furthering of our own theoretical research.

This brief report seeks to introduce five theses that might help to steer our debate on the conflicts and contradictions that emerge at the intersection between militancy and theoretical research.

Thesis 1: Political work can produce and intensify contradictions, rather than just treat previously existing ones.

This is, in a nutshell, the point introduced above. Often we think that, because the aim of political engagement is to collectively treat and transform socio-economic conflicts and contradictions, that political participation should neither partake in these limitations nor, what is worse, make life even harder. This expectation sometimes also plagues militant research, since we often also imagine that bringing together our academic, professional and political activities should have a conciliatory effect on how we organize our lives individually and collectively – quite the contrary of what actually takes place most of the time.

In this sense, there is something to be gained, both theoretically and politically, by collectively assuming that militancy can create further constraints, further challenges, to our lives and plans – and that collective organization and strategic thinking should explicitly account for this and should offer solutions not only to general social contradictions, but to those that militant life itself produces.

Thesis 2: Because political work is itself ridden with contradictions, and takes place within social life, dealing with the internal contradictions of politics can teach us about the broader contradictions of society.

When we do not acknowledge that political praxis itself produces new contradictions – besides intensifying previously existing ones – we might be led to conclude that the emergence of conflicts within a political space is always a sign of its corruption or failure. Examples of this attitude range from how we rarely consider the organizational challenges of scaling up political organizations when we consider how some movement "stopped answering to its base", or how hard it is to take into account the superegoic pressure that political collectives can place on their militants, leading sometimes to aggressive and defensive behavior that is unfairly treated as a moral or personal issue, to how academic and political demands can distort and inform research to the point of making it unrecognizable to both of these poles.

But once we remove this expectation, it is possible that we might start seeing some of these conflicts as informative of deeper structural features that were not available to us before. We might recuperate here the old soviet idea that we learn about the world through the different ways it resists our active attempts to transform it: new aspects of political organization might become intelligible due to the challenges of complexifying political interaction, new aspects of people's subjectivities can become clearer due to these unexpected reactions to collective life – and new aspects of the political situation we are enquiring about might emerge through the contradictions that get in the way of our research. In other words, it is possible that conflicts that emerge inside political processes might become new opportunities to develop practical and theoretical solutions that, albeit grounded on the contradictions of the world at large, would never emerge and confront us outside political participation.

This applies, particularly well, to militant research – provided, of course, that we are not seeking to bring politics into our academic lives as a means to conciliate and harmonize our personal interests. Where this is not the case, this principle translates as the premise that the contradictions of militant research can themselves become objects of a militant enquiry, and in two ways: we learn something about different political movements and organizations by the way their activities, forms of reasoning and values resist translation into academically verifiable knowledge, just as much as we learn about what is truly structural and invariant in academia by how it imposes certain constraints on our militant participation, resisting certain demands of flexibility and engagement.

Thesis 3: The standpoint from which we can evaluate how political and social contradictions touch and affect one another is the organizational point of view.

One of the ways in which we can learn from political contradictions is to find conceptual strategies to name how our political activities resist our own political goals that do not automatically identify these obstacles with reactionary political forces. The fact that hierarchical structures facilitate coordination in medium-sized groups and hence often emerge within political collectives, regardless of their struggle against social hierarchies and inequalities, does not necessarily mean that these political militants in fact silently side with the oppressors, but might rather suggest that, through organizing, we have discovered that hierarchies are a possible solution to the problem of complex coordination –a problem we need to solve in a new way, if we truly wish to get rid of its nefarious political uses.

The "organizational point of view" is a possible name for the perspective that seeks to establish what social reproduction and political transformation have in common and, therefore, the medium through which one can affect and constrain the other. Adding political commitments and collective goals to our lives create new constraints on how we organize our time and efforts, dealing with the university as students, teachers and researchers place further constraints on our political actions. Doing militant research is, after all, constraints how we do research – because we need to abide to the requirements of our political goals – and how we act as militants – since it requires us to abide to standards of sociological and theoretical rigor that might be immediately useless in political practice.

Thesis 4: To think organizationally means to consider that (1) how things are composed together, (2) what they get to interact with and (3) what is made intelligible thereby are three sides of the same question.

An expanded approach to how militant research might learn not only about its object of enquiry, but about the social world within which this very enquiry takes place, might be developed by recuperating a lesson from the field of "tektology", the proletarian science of organization, developed by Alexander Bogdanov. One of the essential tektological ideas is that not only can we not know if not through active engagement with the world – prompting effects that, by resisting our plans and expectations, tell us something about the structure of what we are trying to learn about – but also that there are conditions for what we are capable of interacting with. A man might interact with a policeman, but only a mass movement can interact with the institution of the police. Just as it takes a physical eye, with a retina that is photo-sensitive, to interact with light and, through the invariant constraints placed on the organ by the geometry of frequency variations, make something of the visible world intelligible.

This same principle – which we might call "organizational trinitarianism" – can be helpful when thinking about militant research, its contradictions and what they can tell us both about the underlying constraints of our research and the structure of the political movements we are involved in. It might be stated: how research is composed (one person, many? what relations are established between them? what institutional context?) affects what it gets to interact with (who do we speak to? what sort of material can we produce? can we engage with organizations or only with individuals?) which affects what ultimately becomes intelligible both for researchers (what do we get to theoretize through this?) and political organizations (what is the political use of this research?) alike.

Thesis 5: We can analyze small and large scale organizations by asking how they combine and/or negate the social logics of affinity, property and value.

We already suggested that "organization" is not a thing, but a way of looking at social phenomena that privileges them as "organs" that can interact and sense some things but not others. But what do we see when we look at social reality from this perspective? We can begin to fashion a vocabulary to better name and discuss how these conflicts appear and how we might deal with them by first realizing that, insofar as political activity takes place within a larger social space, its basic organizational structures come from this same "fabric". If social life is woven out of affinity and gift-economy (the realm of families, communities, affinity groups – but also nations, "imagined communities", etc), property and hierarchies (the realm of contracts, laws, bureaucracy – but also states and sovereigns, etc) and value and use-value (the realm of commodity production – but also capital, abstract labor, etc.), then it is likely that these logics also constrain how we collectively organize when we engage politically in a situation. Not only this, but we can also anticipate that at the points where we come into conflict with communitarian, institutional or economic factors, either we rely on one of the two other social structures to fuel and steer our political process, or we must venture into the realm of forms of social organization that are not fully understood, justifiable or predictable. Here we enter the realm of political experimentation.

At this level, two complementary challenges emerge. On the one hand, the only reason militant research exists is because politics is capable of producing situations that are not reducible to well-known social motivations – this is why, if we want to learn about some political process we must listen and learn from its own immanent unfolding, we cannot anticipate or pretend to know how people act, organize and strategize. On the other hand, militant research only stands a chance of learning something from political practice because researchers themselves share, on some level, the commitments that organize the political processes they investigate. Otherwise there would be narratives, motivations, justifications and situations that would to be immediately dismissed as mere semblances hiding personal interests or silently serving the interest of already established social forces. If researchers do not believe solidarity is an effective tool, or that cooperation can truly lead to real political results, then it would be impossible to truly listen to how solidarity and cooperation are mobilized by some political movement or group.

We encounter here, in a more developed form, the same organizational principle we described before, namely, that how we interact and what we learn from some interaction is conditioned by the way our own process of interaction is composed: in this case, if researchers do not hold basic political principles of their own, it is unlikely they will be able to interact and "see" these very principles functioning within the situations they investigate. And this can be even further developed: if militant research is not capable of addressing its own contradictions, and recognizing how these conflicts are part of the very composition of what it means to investigate the world as a militant, then it is unlikely we will know how to listen and interact with the contradictions that emerge from within political life itself.