The Abuse of Life. Matrix of the Colonial-Capitalistic Unconscious
by Suely Rolnik
“It is always a question of freeing life wherever it is imprisoned, or of tempting it into an uncertain combat.”
—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, 1991
“The exhaustion of natural resources is probably much less advanced than the exhaustion of subjective resources, of vital resources, that is afflicting our contemporaries. If so much satisfaction is derived from surveying the devastation of the environment it’s largely because this veils the frightening ruin of subjectivities. Every oil spill, every sterile plain, every species extinction is an image of our souls in rags, a reflection of our lack of world, of our intimate impotence to inhabit it.”
—The Invisible Committee, 2014
National Mobilisation of Indigenous, 2017, Brasilia, Brazil
Photo by Rogerio Assis
The world is in convulsion, and so are we. We are taken by a malaise comprised of a mix of sensations. A dread in the face of the sinister landscape brought about by the rise of reactive forces everywhere, whose level of violence and barbarity reminds us of the worst moments in history. Along with fear, we are also taken by a perplexity in the face of another phenomenon, simultaneous with the first: the takeover of worldwide power by the capitalist system in its latest version—financialised and neoliberal— which extends its colonial project to its ultimate limits, its globalitarian realisation.
At first glance, the simultaneity of these two phenomena seems paradoxical, which blurs our comprehension and leaves us confused: the high degree of complexity and perverse refinement proper to the neoliberal way of life is light-years ahead of the narrow-minded archaism of the brute forces of this new conservatism. They are symptoms of radically different reactive forces, originating in distinct historical moments, coexisting in our contemporaneity. But after the initial shock, we understand that neoliberalism needs these rude subjectivities to do the dirty work of destroying all the achievements of democratic, republican culture, dissolving its imaginary and eradicating from the scene its protagonists—including the lefts in all their nuances, but not only them. Lacking moral limits of any kind, reactive subjectivities fulfil their task at a dizzying speed and with intense violence—as soon as we recognise one of their coups, another has already happened. Carrying out this task gives them a perverse narcissistic jouissance to the point of being pathetic. The ground is prepared for a frictionless and unencumbered free flow of transnational capital.
In addition to fear and astonishment, there is a deep frustration with the recent dissolution of several leftist governments across the world, especially in Latin America— which, not by chance, occurs at the same time as the rise of reactive forces of conservatism and neoliberalism, temporarily united. Such frustration mobilises the traumatic memory of the unfortunate fate of twentieth-century revolutions. A state of alert settles into our subjectivity, as when the scarcity of essential resources crosses a threshold, putting life itself at risk. These are traumatic situations before which we either succumb (a pathological response that saps our vital potency) or we widen the horizon of our gaze, which gives us more precision in deciphering the violence and inventing ways of fighting it (a response which preserves our vital potency, and even intensifies it, in certain cases). In the moments when, in the face of the trauma that we are experiencing, the second response wins, we can see an insurmountable limit against which left-wing projects stumble, especially institutional ones. Such a view imposes on us the task of problematising this limit, in order to create the conditions of its overcoming.
First of all, we are forced to recognise that this barrier is not located only outside the territory of the left, imposed by adverse forces that are external to it. In fact, it is chiefly located inside the left’s own territory, whose horizon ends at the borders of the macropolitical sphere. This is the sphere of the shapes of a world, and its own modes of existence: the positions and functions set out in the social map, the modes of relation between them, as well as their codes and their representations.
Even when the left, especially the institutional left, talks about modes of existence, it tends to do so only from a macropolitical perspective. It thinks of the oppressed as identitarian entities and tends to crystallise them, neutralising the ‘creating power’ (potency) of their subjectivity, and preventing this creating power from fulfilling its function: to respond to the need for change that emerges in the relational fabric of collective life. Worse still is when the focus is on groups of disadvantaged people who don’t fit into the category of the ‘worker’—the identitarian place to which the oppressed are confined in much of the left’s imaginary, reduced as it is to class relations. The left tends to fetishise the workers or even to render them folkloric, imparting a lot to these figures-turned-caricatures within the official map of democracy, which only allows access to civil rights. This is the central goal of the lefts’ resistance: what moves them in this operation is the urge to promote the ‘inclusion’ of such groups into the existing map, resulting in their submissive adaptation to the hegemonic mode of subjectivation. That is the case, for example, with the left’s approach towards Indigenous peoples in Brazil. This focus on mere inclusion suggests to us that the left wing not only assumes the dominant mode of existence as its reference, but also considers it as the sole and universal reference, denying any alterity. The consequence is that they lose the crucial opportunity to inhabit the relational fabric woven by decidedly different modes of existence and, above all, to sustain the possible shifting effects that could render the dominant cartography void. More worryingly, when such effects are felt and new modes of existence emerge within collective life, they are read by the left wing through the same lens and tend to be similarly confined to identitarian entities. This is the case, for example, with movements that continue to disrupt dominant notions of gender, sexuality and race. The singularisation processes underway in these insurrections are ignored, thereby neutralising their vital impulse for transmuting the dominant modes of subjectivation and the changes to individual and collective forms of existence this impulse could unleash. In short, what is ignored and neutralised is these groups’ strength for micropolitical resistance.
Although some left-wing groups recognise micropolitical movements, their readings tend to reduce these to the issue of inequality, narrowing the focus of such uprisings to the class struggle. This persistent reduction of such vision and modes of action to the macropolitical sphere is responsible for the left’s helplessness in the face of the challenges of the present, keeping them imprisoned in sterile academic lucubrations of democracy. In such lucubrations various lefts emphasise ‘demo’ (referring to δεμος or ‘people’ in Greek) in the notion of ‘democracy’, which they translate as “government of the people”. This denies a fundamental detail of its original sense in Greek, which gives it the meaning of ‘self-government’ by the people. This reduces the discussion of the current crisis of democracy to the question of how to reform the state machine in order to better represent ‘the people’.
The dreary fate of left resistance today and the repeated frustration it provokes in us, added to the confusion and fear provoked by the current state of things, leads us to become aware of the absolute limitations of the macropolitical horizon. Here and there insurrections erupt with new strategies in response to the violences against life, in all their nuances, for which the pair right/left is no longer a sufficient designator of forces or stakes. Isn’t the new presence of micropolitical insurrection what surprises us in the resistance movements bursting forth all around, mainly among younger generations and among women, black and LGBTQ people from the metropolitan suburbs, as well as in Indigenous communities? Isn’t this precisely what fascinates us in these movements, despite the difficulty of deciphering and naming it? Is it not just such movements that prevent us from succumbing to melancholic and fatalistic paralysis within the bleak landscape that surrounds us? In these territories-in-formation that are increasingly populated, there is an effective change of the politics of subjectivation. Their horizons expand the reach of our vision, enabling us to foresee the micropolitical sphere. How does the violence of colonial capital operate in this sphere?
The Abuse of the Vital Force
What distinguishes the colonial-capitalistic system is the pimping of life as a force for creation and transmutation. This force is life’s essence and its condition for persistence, in which lies its greater goal, or, its ethical destiny. The matrix of the system relies on the profane rape of life to the point that we can designate it as ‘pimping-capitalistic’. This system expropriates and corrupts the vital force of the entire biosphere: land, air, water, sky, plants, animals and humans. In our species, such rape has particular characteristics, arising from the way the vital force is materialised; it depends on a process of creation with multiple options, implying the need to make a choice. For this reason, Freud assigned the name ‘drive’ to the human vital force, distinguishing this from ‘instinct’. On the one hand, our specificity broadens the possibilities for the transmutation of world-forms when life asks for it; on the other, it makes our species the only one that can prevent the fulfilment of this ethical exigency. And when that happens, the effect is a disempowerment of life, interrupting its germinative process, destroying the vital energy sources of the biosphere—which, in humans, includes the subjective resources for its preservation.
If the Marxist tradition originating in industrial capitalism made us realise that the expropriation of the human vital force in its manifestation as labour is the source of capital accumulation, the latest version of capitalism leads us to recognise that such expropriation is not confined to the domain of labour. In its new fold, this regime feeds off the energy of the drive: the very impulse to create forms of existence and cooperation in which the claims of life materialise into new modes of existence, transforming present scenarios and their attendant values. Diverted by pimping-capitalism from its ethical fate, the drive is channelled to build worlds according to the purposes of the dominant regime: the accumulation of economic, political, cultural and narcissistic capital. This violation of the vital force produces a trauma that makes subjectivity turn deaf to the drive’s claims: it stops being guided by the impulse to preserve life, it corrupts desire and can even act against it. This increasing deterioration of life is precisely the violence of the colonial-capitalistic regime in the micropolitical sphere: a cruelty typical of a perverse politics of desire—subtle, refined, invisible, unreachable by perception. It is a violence similar to that of the pimp who, in order to instrumentalise his prey, operates by means of seduction. Under his spell, the prostitute tends not to realise the pimp’s cruelty; on the contrary, she tends to idealise him, which leads her to surrender to the abuse of her own desire.
The Inescapable Paradox of Subjective Experience
I propose the name ‘colonial-capitalistic unconscious’ to designate the dynamics of the unconscious typical of the existing regime. The main feature of the colonialcapitalistic unconscious is the reduction of subjectivity to its subject’s experience. But what is this experience?
The function of the subject is to enable us to decipher the forms of society we live in, its codes and its relational dynamics. We associate what we perceive and feel with certain representations and we project these representations back onto what we perceive and feel, allowing us to classify and recognise in order to produce meaning. In this sphere of experience, sensory and sentimental, the other is experienced as an external body, separated from the subject. They relate through communication based on a shared language. It is in the experience of the subject that habits are constituted, giving us a sense of familiarity. This is the macropolitical sphere of human life; inhabiting it is essential in order to live in society. The problem with the colonial-capitalistic unconscious is the reduction of subjectivity to the subject, which excludes its immanent experience of our living condition: the outside-the-subject. This exclusion is extremely harmful to life.
In our living condition we are constituted by the effects of forces, or affects, with their diverse and mutable relationships that stir the vital flows of a world and traverse all the bodies that compose that world, making them one sole body in continuous variation, whether or not we are conscious of it. It is an experience that is extrapersonal (since there are no personal contours, since we are the variable effects of the forces of the world, which compose and recompose our bodies), extrasensory (since it happens via affect, distinct from perception), and extra-sentimental (since it happens via vital emotion, distinct from psychological emotion).
Unlike communication, the means of relating with the other in this sphere is empathy. Here, there is no distinction between the cognisant subject and external object. In the subjective experience outside-the-subject, the other lives effectively in our body; they dwell in us through their effects—the affects. By inhabiting our body, the forces of the world impregnate us, creating embryos of other worlds. These produce in us a sense of strangeness, distinct from the familiarity provided by broader recognition of our experience as subjects.
The Malaise of the Paradox Calls Desire to Act
The subjective experiences of the subject (the personal) and the outside-the-subject (the extrapersonal) therefore produce two totally different sensations: the familiar and the strange. These work simultaneously and inseparably, but according to distinct logics and temporalities. There is no possibility of synthesis or translation between them; their relationship is marked by an irreducible paradox that is unavoidable in principle. On the one hand, the movement of the drive, stirred by worlds in embryo attempting to germinate, presses subjectivity toward the conservation of life in its essence, embodied in new modes of existence. On the other, the movement presses subjectivity towards the conservation of existing modes in which life is temporarily embodied so that subjectivity can recognise itself in its experience as a subject.
The malaise caused by the tension between the strange and the familiar, as well as between the two movements triggered by this paradoxical experience, functions as an alarm that summons desire to take action in order to recover a vital, emotional and existential balance; a balance shaken by the emergence of new worlds and the dissolution of the existing world. A constant negotiation between these two movements is imposed on desire. It is precisely at this point that the politics of desire are defined—from the most active to the most reactive. This choice is not neutral, because from it result distinct fates of the drive, which imply distinct unconscious formations in the social field, carriers of greater or smaller affirmations of life. Such is the battlefield in the sphere of micropolitics.
National Mobilisation of Indigenous, 2017, Brasilia, Brazil
Photo by Rogerio Assis
The Colonial-Capitalistic Unconscious
A reactive micropolitics prevails under the control of the colonial-capitalistic unconscious wherein subjectivities are reduced to the experience of a subject. This tends to impose exclusively the movement of conservation of presently existing forms of life. Dissociated from the ongoing process of change that characterises the dynamics of the vital force (which in the human, corresponds to the dynamics of the drive), subjectivity experiences the pressure from embryos of other worlds. There is a threat of dissolution of the self and of its existential field, since ‘this world’, the one in which the subject dwells and which structures the subject, is lived as ‘the world’, sole and absolute. Under these conditions, to regain a balance, desire clings to established forms, which it seeks to preserve at any cost. It may even deploy high levels of violence to ensure its permanence.
It is this separation of subjectivity from its living condition that paves the way for desire to surrender (with jouissance) to the pimping of the drive. Such surrender manifests itself in the conversion of the drive’s force for creation into mere ‘creativity’, which re-accommodates the established cartography, producing new scenarios for the accumulation of capital. In situations of crisis, surrender manifests itself in the investment of the drive in collective movements clamouring for the maintenance of the status quo, such as in the case of the vertiginous rise of conservatism today. Thejouissance of the subject, in both cases, comes from its illusion of belonging, a placebo for the fear of stigmatisation and social shame that the destabilisation of its world provokes. This type of desiring action results in a hapless fate for the drive: the interruption of the process of germination of collective life. Even if the germination is suspended only in the existence of an individual or group, it necessarily generates a necrosis point in the life of the social body as a whole.
The profane abuse of the drive is difficult to grasp since it happens in an invisible sphere covered by a spell of perverse seduction. Yet its numerous manifestations in the social field are fully accessible to those who can tolerate seeing the process of degradation of life, present in all these symptoms of the drive’s violation. The most obvious are the relations with the environment that generate ecological disasters. Or the power relations based on classism, machismo, homophobia, transphobia, racism, xenophobia, chauvinism, nationalism, colonialism, and so on. These relations confine ‘others’ to an imaginary place of inferiority or even subhumanity, leading to their total invisibility and non-existence, and even their concrete elimination, which, in extreme cases, consists of the very disappearance of their bodies. These manifestations are not mere epiphenomena of the regime, but its very bone-marrow.
In the face of this, it is not enough to subvert the order of places designated for each character at play in the scene of power relations (macropolitical insurrection); we must abandon those characters themselves and their politics of desire (micropolitical insurrection), which may render the continuity of the scene itself impracticable. The dissolution of the regime depends unavoidably on the insurrection against violence everywhere and in all human activities in both the macro and micro spheres, which operate with disparate and paradoxical logics and temporalities. This is the necessary condition to achieve an effective transmutation of the present.
In its new version, the regime has managed to colonise the whole planet, affecting its macroand micropolitical guts, to the point that no human activity can escape from it today. If the lefts’ horizon is limited to the macropolitical sphere it is because the subjectivity that tends to predominate in its territories is also structured by the pimping-capitalistic unconscious. As such it is unable to reach the micropolitical sphere. It is already a big step to recognise this fact, instead of remaining paralysed in melancholic frustration with left-wing governments, endlessly lamenting over left impotency towards the latest form of capitalism. But it is not enough to realise all this; we must take one step further, a step indispensable for creating adequate means of resistance to the actual state of things; we must explore the micropolitical sphere, its differences from the macropolitical one, and the inextricable connection between both. What follows are some notes in this direction.
A Programmatic Protest of Consciousness
Focus (visible and audible): the asymmetrical rights and social relations established by the colonial-capitalistic regime, wherein power manifests through social classes, but also through constructions of race, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, and so on.
Agents (only humans): all those who occupy subordinate positions in the power relations that predominate in all fields of social life.
What moves agents: the urge to ‘denounce’ the injustices of the world in its current form, which tends to mobilise consciences.
Intent (empowering the subject): to free oneself from oppression and exploitation; to leave the state of invisibility and inaudibility in order to occupy affirmatively a place of speech and possess the right to a dignified existence. It is about dismantling the asymmetry in power relations, promoting a redistribution of positions that is more equal— not only in political representation, but also in social and economic fields.
Criteria for evaluating situations (moral): a certain system of values. It is this moral compass that orients our choices and actions in the macropolitical sphere.
Operating mode (by opposition): to oppose the oppressor, to subvert the distribution of positions within existing power relations. These are strategies to fight against oppression and the laws that support it in all its manifestations in individual and collective life.
Mode of cooperation (construction of organised movements and/or political parties via identity recognition): such construction is programmatic, departing from a previously defined action plan aimed towards a common demand (a concrete demand, in this case) and based on a similar subordinate position in a particular segment of society. An alleged identity contour is drawn around the sphere of the ‘person’ in subjective experience, which facilitates the necessary grouping. When subjectivity confines and reduces itself to this contour, it interrupts the processes of subjectivation, which result from the active tension between the personal and the extrapersonal. Several of these segments can be united in one movement (around the claims involving, for example, gender, race and class), just as movements of different segments can get together around a cause that concerns all. This mode of cooperation generates pressure to force an effective reversal in power relations at the institutional level (which includes the state and its laws, but is not limited to these). This kind of work is finalised when such a reversal is achieved in the particular field in which the struggle took place.
Protests resulting from the assassination of Marielle Franco, 2018, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Photo by Paulo Barros / Favela em Foco
A Drive’s Protest of the Unconscious
Focus (invisible and inaudible): the perverse abuse of the vital force of the biosphere in all its elements, including the human, by the colonial-capitalistic regime with its highly aggressive pathology and its serious consequences for the fate of the planet.
Agents (human and nonhuman): all the elements of the biosphere that rebel against violence towards life. The dynamics of response to this violence in human and non-human agents are different: the non-human instinctively recognises the anaemia of vital force resulting from its abuse and produces transmutations that allow it to resume its course. A river that dries out because of excess pimping-capitalistic trash may rebel, returning to flow now underground, where it is protected from these toxic effects;5 a tree may bloom before spring, preventing the sterility that can result from excess pollution.
The human response to this abuse depends on the dominant politics of desire, which vary in different cultures, yet the broader reduction of subjectivity to the experience as a subject, inseparable from the abuse of the drive, leads us to interpret the fragile state in which we find ourselves as a sign of collapse. Desire thus clings to the status quo, acting against the perseverance of life, and not in its favour: we become the walking dead, zombies. The agents of micropolitical insurrection in the human field are therefore all those who seek to resist the rape of their vital drive and resume the power to decide its fate, and so regaining ethical responsibility towards life. Assuming that the decolonisation of the unconscious necessarily implies the field of our relationships, from the most intimate to the most distant, the effects of any gesture in this direction are collective.
What moves its agents (the impulse for the perseverance of life): in humans this manifests as the impulse to announce worlds to come, which tend to awaken the unconscious, aggregating new allies to the micropolitical insurgency.
Intent (potentialising life force): to reappropriate the life force and its power of creation, which in humans depends on the reappropriation of language so that the drive can find its utterance (in words, images, gestures, modes of existence, sexuality, etc.), in order to render sensible the worlds which announce themselves to life-knowing. In other words, combating the pimping of the drive implies building for oneself another body, leaving the shell of a body structured in the dynamics of abuse—as the locusts abandon their exoskeleton so another body, still embryonic, can germinate and take its place. Producing the potentialisation of the life force is thus distinct from empowering the subject, an idea belonging to the sphere of macropolitical insurrection. Both intentions are important; the problem is that when the insurgency aims only for empowerment we remain captive to the logic of the very system we seek to combat.
Criteria for evaluating situations (ethical): what life demands in order to persevere itself every time it is weakened. When existing values stop making sense and start to suffocate life, an ethical drive-compass guides desire through choice and action toward a transvaluation.
Operating mode (by affirmation): affirming life in its germinative essence to abandon power relations. Resisting abuse, which depends on the long work of overcoming the trauma that such abuse necessarily provokes, is the condition for dismantling the power of the colonial-capitalistic unconscious, be it in the subjective position of the subaltern, even when we rise up macropolitically against it; or in the position of the sovereign, even when we are the most macropolitically correct. For example, a woman who remains dependent on the male gaze to exist not only falls into the trap of chauvinist sexist abuse but feeds it with her own desire. Trying to get out of this place, but only macropolitically, rising up against inequality, but not incorporating the micropolitical sphere, maintains a struggle for power wherein the chauvinist character and the sexist scene remain the hegemonic references, and thus perpetuate the very scene this struggle aimed to combat.
However if any figure occupying the subaltern position in the script of power relations— as the oppressor’s victim, or opponent—abandons their role, transfiguring their character to a different one or simply deserting the scene, the scene can’t go on. Facing the anguish provoked by the destabilisation of the scene, the oppressor has several possible responses. At best—which is already happening, but only for a minority—this experience can propel him to overcome his disconnect from extrapersonal experience as well as his inability to sustain himself in the tension between the personal and extrapersonal experiences. From then on, he will tend to recreate himself in order to interact with these new character(s)—that, in turn, tend to transmute with this interaction—becoming himself an agent of micropolitical insurrection as well. In this collaboration, a new script might emerge, in which the politics of desire that guides the characters and the relationship between them is no longer unconsciously subjected to colonial-capitalistic pimping, leading to the constitution of new scenes in the social landscape. But it is also obvious that the impossibility of continuing to act as an oppressor can equally provoke a violent backlash, driven by its exasperated will to conserve the scene and its characters at any price. This is, unfortunately, the trend evidenced in the exponential increase of femicides in the regions of the world where feminism has intensified and expanded, as is the case in Latin America.
In the micropolitical mode of insurrection, resistance to the pathology of the colonial- capitalistic regime is thus inseparably both political and clinical. It is about seeking to heal life of its impotence, in its captivity inside the relational plot of abuse that alienates subjectivity from vital demands. Such healing, on which depends the dissolution of the regime at a micropolitical level, involves subtle and complex work interrupted only by death. But every time we take a step in this direction, a particle of the regime— within us and outside of us—is dissolved.
Mode of cooperation (construction of the commons, via empathy, through resonance between embryonic worlds): to cooperate here is about weaving multiple network connections from distinct situations, experiences and languages, whose unifying link is an ethical perspective: the affirmation of life in its transfiguring and transvaluating essence. This weaving creates temporary relational territories, varied and variable, in which collective synergies are produced, providers of a reciprocal sheltering that facilitates the work of elaborating the trauma which results from the perverse operation of the colonial-capitalistic regime. This is the condition for success in composing an individual and collective body that is resistant to the pimping of life and capable of repelling it. From such collective reappropriations of the drive comes the potential constitution of fields for the emergence of events, in which other modes of existence and their respective cartographies—germinal worlds—continue to develop. Unlike the macropolitical mode of cooperation, these insurrectionary actions are not pre-programmed.
—Translated from the Portuguese by Vivian Mocellin.
Abridged and edited from an early version of this evolving (living!) essay, and published here without final oversight by the author. We thank Suely Rolnik for her generosity and trust in South as a State of Mind, and the opportunity to think along. Check our website for links to subsequent versions of the essay as they are published.