running away

Avery F. Gordon

Avery F. Gordon is a writer, educator and radio producer. Her work focuses on radical thought and practice and she writes about captivity, enslavement, war and other forms of dispossession and how to eliminate them. Her most recent book is The Hawthorn Archive: Letters from the Utopian Margins (2017).

nonparticipation | the yardsticks | strikers rebels escape artists

internal report, photograph of wall

File note: It goes without saying that commoning and noncapitalist economic relations are crucial to everyone associated with the archive and to the work of the archive itself, which is based on co- operation and income sharing. Because it goes without saying, it’s completely taken for granted and usually discussed in practical terms, the most urgent one being how to source income and housing while running away and developing a practice of nonparticipation…. Running away, living apart, squatting, commoning, feral trading, bartering, self-managed currencies, human, debt, labor, knowledge strikes, boycott, divestment, nonpolicing, throwing your shoe at an occupying president — the ways of nonparticipation are many. Indeed, the range of actions, thoughts, inactions, and unthoughts that might be said to be instances or examples or forms of nonparticipation in the given order of things is large and varied and difficult to summarize simply. To say that nonparticipation always entails participating in one way or another in something else is decidedly unhelpful, if accurate in the epistemologically technical sense and a good reminder that the yardsticks matter a great deal, perhaps are all that matter. The principle of communal luxury doesn’t unify the diversity but it does bring it closer together, at least providing an esprit de corps. This file includes two short reports for internal use, one failing to classify types of nonparticipation and the other on the principle of communal luxury. It also includes a somewhat random selection of quotations that were stuck up on a wall near to where students sit and study.


Hawthorn Archives <hawthornarchives@archives.aka>

To: undisclosed list

Subject: nonparticipation

Hello to everyone on the potential classification project. Here are my thoughts after the first preliminary meeting, bringing newcomers up to speed and reporting back on the assignment I was given.

The request from the Museum of Non Participation, which I’ve already dealt with, raised again the question of what nonparticipation is, what we mean by it, what is its relationship to other adjacent or even allied concepts, such as escape, running away, marronage, fugitivity and abolition, and whether in fact we do have a considerable collection of materials on it. Once again, the suggestion was made that there might be some utility in trying to prepare a clear definition that could then be used to classify existing activities and materials more carefully and to encourage further collaborations, deposits, projects and so on. My understanding is we agreed that we didn’t need or want a clear definition, that it wasn’t our job to prepare one for others and that we had other ways of reaching out to friends, comrades, and possible collaborators. But the matter wasn’t settled and a few of us were asked to delve a little further into specific questions, in my case, to try to distinguish between types of nonparticipation that embody a logic of protest and those that don’t, this subject reflecting the upsurge in recent arrivals to the archive.

Unfortunately, as soon as you start to try to hold this distinction steady to explain it, it begins to fall apart. At first, it seems clear that forms of nonparticipation that embody a logic of protest are actions, almost always used in combination with other activities, whose purpose is to force a governing, corporate, judicial, or patriarchal authority to do something it has thus far refused to do: stop waging war, pay higher wages, hire better people, convict a criminal, release a criminal, control the police, build houses, restrain greedy landlords, permit a contact visit, stop building prisons, change, modify, eliminate a law, share power, stop deporting people without visas, govern responsibly, end an occupation, provide free healthcare, redistribute money, tell the truth, be fair, be inclusive of difference and dissent, fix the train tracks, regulate banks, open free schools, pay respect, etc. Then it becomes necessary to admit as protest actions those that don’t want to make clear demands to the authorities that nonetheless take form or shape as collective visible mobilization in public places, such as the various Occupy encampments; public actions with unusual forms, such as the 1969 hex thrown on the stock market by a faction of the women’s liberation movement; various collective witnessing, such as Witness Against Torture and on and on into a mess of generalizations, qualifications, exclusions, insults, and errors.

Types of nonparticipation that do not embody a protest logic are even trickier to describe because they’re often not calling attention to themselves and since they could have once embodied such a logic but may no longer do so. Take, for example, Graciela Carnevale who was part of the Rosario Avant-Garde Art Group (Grupo de Arte de Vanguardia de Rosario) active in Argentina in the mid 1960s. The collective organized several highly politicized audience interactive events, including in 1968 the famous exhibition Tucumán Arde (Tucumán is Burning), until 1969, when to protest state censorship and repression they went silent and abandoned art. Tucumán, in the north of Argentina, was historically a site of intense labor struggles over sugar, until many of the mills were closed in the late 1960s when Onganía’s government cut price supports that created widespread immiseration. At the time of the exhibition, the covert urban counter- insurgency war had already begun and would lead to the 1974 siege and slaughter in the “holy war” waged by Isabel Perón’s army against the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo. Graciela Carnevale did not return to working as an artist until the 1990s, although she did maintain over that time at some danger to herself the group’s archive. After twenty years, a refusal to work, in this case to make art, is no longer a protest, but a way of living. Or, take the example of Can Masdeu, the self-sustaining commune on the outskirts of Barcelona who bake bread on Fridays. When the abandoned leper hospital was initially squatted by the Barcelona activists and neighboring elderly gardeners in 2001, they considered the reoccupation as a political act of withdrawal from the real estate and privatization politics of the city. Today, their complex collective life cannot be adequately described as protest even though they continue to participate in direct actions nor as an instrument for any political ends other than the noncapitalist life they are leading. Here, means and ends are deeply and satisfactorily intertwined and the relational negativity of the “non” irrelevant or inoperative. We could include also the important work being done to teach people in communities enclosed by the police how not to call them for help and to provide operating in-time infrastructure alternatives, a good example of building in-difference from the ground up. Here, too, we see the long history of protest against police power in black communities especially in the United States and the United Kingdom as an al- ways present and available background for direct action or nonparticipating action as needed.

And then, there are types of nonparticipation that do not embody a logic of protest but might do so in the future or for a specific moment or if provoked. It’s worth remembering that nonparticipation or partial nonparticipation is a condition imposed on millions of people in the world who do not participate in many organized forms of social, economic, political, and cultural life because they are excluded from them. These individuals, their families, and their communities fend for themselves along the escape routes and autonomous zones they control and inhabit. They build their own “illegal” housing, create their own “illegal” economies, often grow, make or scavenge their own “illegal” food and clothing, maintain their own “illegal” transportation systems, and school their own “truant” children. They have their own lawyers, dispute resolution mechanisms to avoid the police, teachers, engineers, plumbers, bankers, drivers, cooks, day care directors, journalists, musicians and so on. They poach on existing institutions and infrastructures, engage in feral trade, depend on permanent and temporary social, cultural, religious and familial networks as needed, and refuse to share or open projects to everyone all the time. It is not an easy life by any means. But, the responses by the world’s majority to being abandoned by the state — the escapes — certainly constitute a political strategy in the general sense. In Life as Politics, Asef Bayat calls “social nonmovements” these “collective endeavors of millions of noncollective actors, carried out in the main squares, back streets, courthouses, or communities” often without specifically articulated ideologies or leaders (p. ix). The way of life of the urban dispossessed, what Bayat calls the “quiet encroachment of the ordinary” is an alternative to revolution, insurrection, and organized social movement reform when these are unavailable, too dangerous, or undesirable. Quiet encroachment “describes the silent, protracted, but pervasive advancement of the ordinary people on the propertied, powerful or the public, in order to survive and improve their lives” (p. 56). By survive and improve their lives, Bayat means acquiring autonomy and redistributing social goods, the two main goals of nonmovement movements. Unlike protest, quiet encroachment is oriented toward immediate “redress” (p. 59), by which he means that rather than mobilize publicly and visibly to pressure authorities to meet demands, quiet encroachment practices its claims. In other words, nonmovement movements tend to build houses rather than attend meetings to strategize demanding for housing, except or until meetings become necessary, a point never predictable in advance. And this is also Bayat’s point. Nonmovement movements go along like this and then, often it seems to the outsider by surprise, mobilize themselves in more conventional political terms of protest, the preparation for which becoming visible, sometimes even to participants only at the moment of enunciation. This is preparation as we’ve used the term at the archive: “Actual (even though quiet and individualized) defiance by a large number of people implies that a massive societal mobilization is already under way” (p. 24). When patience in daily struggles reaches its limit, when something out there (like war, interstate conflict, a new government) impinges in ways it hadn’t before, when something closer in makes people want to scream (like another police killing), when networks get enlarged and solidarities are extended (like the strikes by the unions seem relevant again) whenever whatever . . . then nonmovements’s oppositionality can be activated in a different way, more public, more like protest. But here, it is important, crucial, not to measure quiet encroachment by whether it turns into or is a step toward collective mobilization as that is defined by the US-European post-World War II social movement model. That’s not the standard by which we judge.

For us, nonparticipation as a means to a better way of living is what’s crucial. The question for us is what is required to stop appealing to the system itself for redress, to stop believing the forces that are killing you can/will save you? What is required for being ready and available at a moment’s notice to live autonomously from the system one wants to abolish? Nonparticipation to achieve participation in the given terms of order is not our goal although as everyone here always insists, thoughtfulness is necessary to assess when withdrawal and separation is an abdication of a responsibility to struggle — merely a reaction — and when it is the only thing possible. The case of prisoners is obviously relevant and important since they are the other large group of people systematically and legally denied participation in social, political, and economic life. Living in prison — in a cage — requires special skills, difficult to acquire, that are always nonparticipatory: it’s not possible to live in there on their terms, which is why prisoner protests often take the form they do — hunger strikes, self-immolation, sewing one’s lips closed as they have been doing for years in the offshore immigration prisons Australia runs. You can begin to see why the experiences of people for whom protest and existential liberalism are rarely viable options have extremely important lessons to teach us. By existential liberalism, I mean people for whom protest or critical exposé are important to their identity and their weekend plans but not a necessity because if the demands aren’t met, it really doesn’t matter, doesn’t negatively impact their lives or change anything they’re doing or planning on doing. There’s a lot of work involved in living independently from the system you hate or that hates you and it requires mindfulness and divestment. I propose that we not get too involved in parsing the term nonparticipation except in so far as it might help us keep track of those moments and practices in which there is an active ongoing starting again “all at once, as if born of some underground region of civilization,” as if a counter-world. Let’s return to the radical traditions and the vocabulary closest to us, to running away and the preparation for it, to fugitivity, and to abolition as the watchword or keyword for a “sense of urgency, relevance, or potential for the future.” Abolition has acquired “accretions” of meaning over time since it named the movement to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. As Robert Fanuzzi confirms, these “accretions remind us that ‘abolition,’ the byword for finality, is at bottom the symbol for urgent democratic social and political change that has not yet occurred.”


Hawthorn Archives <hawthornarchives@archives.aka>

To: undisclosed list

Subject: the yardsticks

Hello. For the upcoming meeting, a brief report on the idea of communal luxury.

DB reminded us that at the end of the day what matters is that “we have to be clear about the yardsticks we are applying,” a phrase that sounded like one of his usual malapropisms, but which he was quoting. In a set of conversations clearly never meant to be made public (Greta Adorno took notes and it’s her transcription that was published) that Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer had in 1956 to discuss the possibility of writing a contemporary version of The Communist Manifesto, Adorno says: “How would it be if we were to formulate some guiding political principles today?” Horkheimer replies: “If we are to present ourselves with such ambitions, we have to be clear about the yardsticks we are applying, otherwise Marx will keep reappearing at the seams. We want the preservation for the future of everything that has been achieved in America today, such as the reliability of the legal system, the drugstores, etc. This must be made quite clear whenever we speak about such matters.” Adorno assents, provided “That includes getting rid of tv programmes when they are rubbish.”

This made everybody laugh and start talking at once since Marx only ever appears on the seams here, we are abolishing the whole criminal injustice system, we have our own drug suppliers, we are not happy with the “etc.” and think trashy tv programs are the least of our problems.


As Kristin Ross recounts in Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, for seventy-two days, from March 18 to May 28, a “worker-led insurrection transformed the city of Paris into an autonomous Commune and set about improvising the free organization of its social life according to principles of association and cooperation” (p. 9). The Commune, as participant and resident historian Arthur Arnould described it, was “something MORE and something OTHER than an uprising” (p. 36 ). That something else Ross describes as “a set of dismantling acts directed at the state bureaucracy and performed by ordinary men and women” (p. 65). The Commune’s dismantling acts were grounded in a diagnostic or analytic principle articulated by the egalitarian teacher Joseph Jacotot (and later by Lauryn Hill) — everything is in everything — and affirmed a politics and a principle that Ross entitles her book: “communal luxury.” (Rancìere’s book on Jacotot is in the library, for those interested.)

The phrase “communal luxury” first appeared in the April 1871 Federation of Artists’ Manifesto, the handiwork of poet, fabric designer, and radical teacher Eugène Pottier, who most famously wrote L’Internationale and died penniless like his box-maker father. The key statement from the manifesto reads: “We will work cooperatively towards our regeneration, the birth of communal luxury, future splendors and the Universal Republic” (p. 65). Communal luxury is neither capitalist nor bourgeois extravagance nor is it what Ross calls “utilitarian.” Although the term emerged out of the struggles by artists and art educators, it’s not restricted to narrowly construed aesthetic contexts or public art projects nor is it a synonym for beauty. The artists themselves, in close collaboration with teachers and other intellectuals, are involved in their own dismantling acts. As anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus pointedly put it: “Ah, if the painters and sculptors were free, there would be no need for them to shut themselves up in Salons. . . . They would burn all the old barracks of the time of misery in an immense fire of joy, and I imagine that in the museums of works to be preserved, they would not leave very much of the pretended artistic work of our time” (p. 92). Communal luxury is meant to be the political-economic principle for “a new humanity, made up of free and equal companions,” to quote Reclus again, “oblivious to the existence of old boundaries, helping each other in peace from one end of the world to the other” (p. 14). Communal luxury is the principle/infrastructure that replaces “the old barracks of the time of misery.”

Misery and luxury are well-chosen terms. As Ross explains, “At the moment in mid-April when the manifesto was composed, the phrase served to expressly counteract and defy the abject ‘misérablisme’ of Versaillais depictions of Parisian life under the Commune” (p. 100). The com- munards were the subject of a relentless propaganda campaign by the state, the army, and the church, which had two main goals. The first was to immediately disrupt efforts by the urban Parisians to reach out to the traditionally conservative rural peasants and small farmers by convincing them that “the Commune, were it not defeated, would seize their land and divide

it up among themselves” (p. 100). “Partageux,” the communards were called as an epithet, the term meaning a person who believes in the equitable distribution of wealth, land, and property and deriving from the French verb partager, to share. The second broader goal of these depictions was to “create, more generally, the certainty that sharing could only mean the sharing of misery” (p. 100). The charge that the communards were offering a life of shared poverty and unhappiness while only a Christian capitalist state with a command and control central army could provide a life of wealth and well-being bore repeating since it obviously strained the truth of working people’s experience. And indeed, it had most recently been rehearsed in the wave of militancy in France and among the Chartists in England in the 1830s and 1840s, as well as three hundred years earlier against those, many peasants themselves, in revolt against enclosure, privatization, and hierarchical political authority. Not to put too fine a point on it, four years after the Commune was destroyed, the French state was condemning communal property in colonized Algeria in the same terms (p. 134).

The accusation is a familiar one, still today, and then as now it had powerful traction. Paris had been under a brutal siege by the Germans for four months. Food was scarce and hunger widespread. The bakers had refused to bake at night until working conditions improved and the shoemakers, because they prided themselves on their independence and radicalism as everyone at the archive learns as a child, refused for the duration to fix anybody’s shoes unless persuaded it was essential. A large number of the city’s workers were completely involved in self-governing not working for others. The city’s routes of movement were disrupted, cut off by blockades everywhere, and surrounded by the three armies at play: the Prussians, the radical national guard — the army of the Commune — and the remnant of the French regular Army camped outside the city at Versailles. Schooling was in disarray because of the participation of so many teachers, especially women, in the new autonomous government. And so on.

This was the heady complex and shifting context in which the artists had the audacity to counter the propaganda of “misérablisme” with the idea of communal luxury. As Ross writes: “‘Communal luxury’ countered any notion of the sharing of misery with a distinctly different kind of world: one where everyone, instead, would have his or her share of the best” (p. 100). The refusal to accept the higher authority of the state, the church and the Army; the refusal to participate in the miserablist terms of life on offer; the daring creation, without anyone’s permission but their own, of a self-governing noncapitalist city; and the insistence not only that ordinary women and men knew what was best for themselves but that they also deserved the best, a best reaching for its own more equitable and more free terms. The audacity of the experiment and its assertions in practice no doubt accounted for the brutality and the severity of its suppression, in which its participants were massacred, imprisoned or banished from France, in some cases permanently.

The Commune was a short-lived government but the political principle or “imaginary” of communal luxury remains as a counterpoint to the misery produced by “senseless luxury,” as

William Morris called capitalist wealth, which never exists without enslavement of one sort or another. Everything is in everything. Today, this diagnostic principle seems very familiar to critical scholars as intersectionality, even if it is too often shorn of its original attachment to the ideal of equality and the abolition of private wealth, without which, as Jacotot insisted, there could never be any true emancipation. What might it mean to re-familiarize ourselves with the political principle of communal luxury? It might give to the very old demand “we want more” — memorably represented in Peter Watkin’s six-hour experimental film La Commune (Paris 1871) and later in Teresa Konechne’s stunning student-produced film This Black Soil about the best of everything the black residents of Bayview, Virginia, wanted once they had successfully prevented the state from putting a prison in their small community — a very different kind of quality or value, one rooted in solidarity and egalitarianism rather than in individual ambition or aggrandizement and heartbreaking misery. Communal luxury: a good yardstick to apply.

Edited excerpt from Avery F. Gordon, The Hawthorn Archive: Letters from the Utopian Margins. Fordham University Press, 2018, pp. 142-152.