Lecture at the opening of the exhibition Compromiso Político, at BAK, Utrecht, 10 February.
I am honoured to speak at the opening of the exhibition Compromiso Político. Of interest perhaps, is that Matthijs de Bruijne served as paranymph at the defense of my PhD one month ago, sort of a best man. Now I feel I can reciprocate in kind, returning the favour.
Though we stem from different generations and have followed different trajectories, Matthijs and I share a history of involvement in social movements. We share a compromiso político, a political commitment that we have conceived, adjusted, and developed over time with a large degree of improvisation.
To be politically committed, I would argue, is never a straightforward affair. You tend to develop a set of principles or ideals, only to discover that these don’t really rhyme with the logic of existing institutions. Being committed always involves a complex negotiation with other modes of operation. With the logic of art institutions, or that of the university in my case, or with the bureaucracy of a large organization, such as a trade union or a political party. Political commitment necessarily involves a degree of social schizophrenia. The ability to play different roles at the same time, and somehow reconcile these with one another.
Matthijs has asked me to elaborate today on a largely intuitive philosophy that we have discussed from time to time, over drinks or dinner. We could call it “the dual perspective”, or “one foot in, one foot out”. It is basically an attempt to steer clear of both sectarian marginalization and institutional business as usual.
The term dual perspective comes from Antonio Gramci’s Prison Notebooks, written while imprisoned in the 1930s by the fascist regime of Mussolini. It is inspired on what we can call the animalistic politics of Machiavelli. In Il Principe, Machiavelli argues that for a ruler there are two ways to politically struggle, through the law or through force, as a man or an animal. I quote:
Therefore, you must know that there are two modes of fighting: one in accordance with the laws, the other with force. The first is proper to man, the second to beasts. But because the first, in many cases, is not sufficient, it becomes necessary to have recourse to the second: therefore, a prince must know how to make good use of the natures of both the beast and the man. This rule was taught to princes symbolically by the writers of antiquity: they recounted how Achilles and many others of those ancient princes were given to Chiron the centaur to be raised and cared for under his discipline. Since, then, a prince must know how to make use of the nature of the beast, he should choose from among the beasts the fox and the lion; for the lion cannot defend itself from traps, while the fox cannot protect itself from the wolves. It is therefore necessary to be a fox, in order to recognize the traps, and a lion, in order to frighten the wolves: those who base their behaviour only on the lion do not understand things.
Gramsci used Machiavelli’s metaphor of the monster, the Centaur, not merely to argue that one should be at times sincere, and at times smart and deceitful in politics. He used it in a much broader sense, to think politically not in clear-cut binaries, but always in twofold.
The dual perspective can present itself on various levels, from the most elementary to the most complex; but these can all theoretically be reduced to two fundamental levels, corresponding to the dual nature of Machiavelli’s Centaur-half-animal and half-human. They are the levels of force and of consent, authority and hegemony, violence and civilisation, of the individual moment and of the universal moment (“Church” and “State”), of agitation and of propaganda, of tactics and of strategy.
This dual perspective can also be applied to the classic dichotomy between inside and outside that pertains to all political movements. As the inside, there is the famous “long march through the institutions” from the sixties and seventies. The idea that to change society, you have to enter the institutions and wage a long campaign to change society from within. It falls in the tradition of the so-called revisionism of socialist luminaries such as Bernstein and Jaurès, who broke with Marx in that they envisioned not a grand revolution, but a gradual transformation through parliamentary means. The problem with this vision is that soon it became apparent that this implies that not only the institutions are taken over by the movement, but also that the movement is taken over by the tough logic of institutions. The ideals of the so-called ‘protest generation’ of the sixties are now mostly associated with their fondness of political power. Not to speak of social democrat parties or trade unions, generally conceived of as a career paths rather than movements.
On the other hand, there is the outside. A good example is the utopian socialist communities, the 19th century phalanstères of Saint Simon, or the Walden colony of the Dutch writer Frederik van Eeden. More contemporary examples are the Dutch squatting movement, those parts of the feminist movement who tried to live without men, or the black nationalism that sought a black nation within the U.S. The point of departure is that it is easier to construct a better society outside the logic of existing institutions. Instead, you create your own. The drawback of this strategy is that the movement tends to isolate itself more and more from the society that it set out to change. Moreover, all sorts of problems that occur in ordinary society, tend to re-appear with a vengeance in the alternative community outside of it.
This distinction between the inside and the outside is closely connected with another pair of concepts, that of consensus and conflict. It is how you relate to power and the negotiation table. Do you make compromises, do you get your hands dirty, or do you prefer to remain pure in conviction but marginal in effect? The Netherlands has a particularly famous tradition of consensual decision-making, legitimized by an extensive mythology which revolves around the dikes, and the need to cooperate to keep the water out. Political thinkers such as Jacques Rancière and Chantal Mouffe have pointed to the fact that consensus always revolves around the inclusion of demands that are feasible within existing frameworks, and at the same time the exclusion of demands that aim for more ambitious forms of change. When the latter is fully achieved, when the aim for wholesale societal transformation is fully evicted from politics, we have reached the point called post-political politics, that of politics reduced to administration.
This dominant form of inclusion and exclusion has famously been dubbed repressive tolerance by Herbert Marcuse. In the Netherlands we call it doodknuffelen, cuddling someone to death. There is this fascinating way in which the famous gezelligheid, the untranslatable cosiness of this country, is always shot through with normative power. Het moet wel gezellig blijven. Doodknuffelen roughly functions as follows: leaders of a particular political, ethnic, or religious movement, are awarded an institutional position as a member of a recognised interest group. Soon, dependence on subsidies and participation in the decision making process translates itself in a more moderate position and identification with the governing institutions. Those that remain critical, are almost immediately confronted with the question whether they have a better idea, or scientifically proven and feasible alternative, something that fits with existing structures. When this is not the case, the critic is labelled a cynic, a person not up to date with the spirit of the time and excluded from the debate.
The dual perspective would mean that you aspire to be at the same time, both inside and outside, both in conflict and involved in the negotiation of the next consensus. Not too much inside, so that you become part of the sanitized mainstream, not too much outside so that you become marginalized. You are, so to say, one foot in, one foot out; both a fox and a lion.
I talked with Matthijs about the dual perspective with respect to the cleaners’ campaign in the Netherlands. It kicked off in 2007 with a tiny group of people with a tiny amount of resources, occupying the headquarters of the ING bank. Still a sociology student at the time, I was involved in the campaign, in part for romantic reasons. And my friendship with Matthijs developed as a result of this campaign. He had just come back from Argentina, with a Latin American spirit of dedication to the cause.
The Dutch cleaning sector has been a laboratory for flexibilisation and outsourcing practices in the Netherlands. It was at the forefront of the trend towards precarious living and working traditions that is now become a much more generalized phenomenon, also in the arts. Precarity is an invented word, a neologism, a translation of the French precarité. It derives from the Latin precare, which means to beg, and in the Dutch Van Dale dictionary we find under precair, the synonym ter bede: to possess something of which the claim can be revoked at any moment.
The cleaners epitomized this trend, what some have started to call “the new social question”. Ever since the eighties, cleaners no longer formed part of the normal workforce, they were hired from specialized cleaning companies, who were in a highly competitive fight to offer the lowest prices to their clients. The largest single cost they could compete on, were the labour conditions of the two hundred thousand cleaners themselves. One of the ways of cutting costs, was by divvying up the hours, two hours here, two hours there. Very late or very early hours, with the result that cleaners were largely invisible. At the same time, a large segment of the cleaners formed part of the working poor.
Important is that the cleaners trade union did not have a position at the negotiation table when it started the campaign. Consensus was not a choice, conflict a necessity. Only seven percent of cleaners were member of a union in 2007. The union had to politicize things, raise consciousness, create visibility, organise people, and make a lot of noise, before they would even have the opportunity to demand anything or represent anyone.
The Dutch trade union copied the techniques of the famous Justice for Janitors campaign, that originally started out in Los Angeles. Ken Loach made his film Bread & Roses about it. And the urban sociologist Mike Davis wrote in his book Magical Realism on the miraculous transformation of the cleaners from pariah proletariat to peaceful guerilla army. The working method, simply called organizing combines a more traditional return to the workfloor, with modern registration and management techniques derived from the American election campaigns.
In a series of strategic locations, organizers started to contact cleaners and build a broader social network, involving churches, neighborhood organisations, designers, activists and artists. Then, through a series of progressively escalating actions, pressure was put on companies and reports started appearing in the press. The timing of the escalation meant that once the negotiations commenced on a new labour agreement for cleaners, there was a lot of pressure on the employers to grant better wages. The method, called organizing, represented a break with the dominant 1990s view of the trade union as simply a product in need of better marketing, what people call “the service model”. “You are the trade union”, “we are all the trade union”, the cleaners were told, when they asked whether the customer service of the trade union cannot solve matters for them.
It follows the logic of the dual perspective: the campaign positions itself at the same time both outside and inside the existing institutional framework of the trade union, and merges the logic of conflict and consensus. It combines short term tactics with a long-term strategy of increasing the organisational density of the cleaning sector.
I think a similar duality is present in the political commitment of Matthijs de Bruijne. With one foot in the world of the arts, and with one foot outside of it. Both in conflict with the institutional logic of the art field, and at the same time very much in league with it.
There are those who have advocated for a return to art’s traditional bulwark: the classical notion of autonomy. The art world in this perspective should be considered as a somewhat sanctified space, free from considerations of utility. The flipside of the coin is that art is also deemed impotent to signify anything outside of its institutional perimeters. In the words of the Dutch art critic Den Hartog Jager:
“[W]hatever you do as an artist, however loud you scream, it is impossible to really exert an influence on the world, to leave something behind that is meaningful outside the artistic realm.”
The practice of Matthijs, I would say, is questioning the very parameters of that artistic realm, that distinction between inside and the outside. At the same time, it is exactly your identity as an artist that allows you to intervene in society. You are so to say, both the fox and the lion. And it is exactly the tension, your capacity to make the estrangement between these two worlds somehow productive, that constitutes the power of your art.