in collaboration with Chase Wilson
Shortly after one takes that uniquely dramatic ideological plunge into the swirling, full-spectrum milieu of radical politics, one inevitably encounters the phrase “dual power”. Coined in 1917 by Vladimir Lenin in his essay, The Dual Power, it has since taken on a frustrating multitude of definitions, though most of them are bound to a simple core postulation:
A community which has the capacity for self-organization is in the position to directly seize power from those institutions which would otherwise benefit parasitically from its overarching incoherence.
In short, decentralized power can be, and often is, the death of centralized power.
Looking at the term (двоевластие, or the romanized dvoevlastie) with neither that distillation nor the original context of its formulation in mind, it would seem to be more or less equivalent in meaning to the English word “diarchy”. But in The Dual Power, Lenin rigorously mapped it onto the sociopolitical situation of revolutionary Russia and its respective host of collectivist and insurrectionary overtones.
“The highly remarkable feature of our revolution is that it has brought about a dual power. [...] What is this dual power? Alongside the Provisional Government, the government of bourgeoisie, another government has arisen, so far weak and incipient, but undoubtedly a government that actually exists and is growing—the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.”
It referred to not just a specific concept but the setting in which it was conceived. In fact, the Russian wikipedia article on dual power doesn’t currently allocate any page-space to the notion of dual power as a general strategy or scenario that has occurred or could occur outside the timeframe and physical location of Lenin’s original essay. There are absolutely some conceptual parallels between Lenin’s двоевластие and the dual power of common conversation, but it would be needlessly limiting and borderline dishonest to conflate the terms and their respective implications. Due to a century of being applied—perhaps erroneously, perhaps not—to a medley of left-libertarian and anarchist praxes, the definition of dual power now falls somewhere between a uselessly abstract truism and the strict specificity of Lenin’s dual power à l’origine.
If the term to be proffered as an ideological basis and strategic praxis for the social struggles of the 21st century, it must be updated with respect to the nuances of today’s societal, environmental, and technological realities. Its use in #OccupySandy: Disaster Relief and Dual Power last week was not terribly confusing, but not enough effort was made to get rid of some of the outdated, and frankly oppressive, Leninist baggage. The central purpose of the Occupy Sandy piece was to point out the incredible versatility of horizontal decision-making processes and how they tend to modify themselves to fit the necessity of the situation. Consensus was in no way invented by the propagators of the Occupy meme, but in these past 14 months of widespread social unrest, the evolution of horizontal coordination processes has been exponentially sped up by the ongoing creation of a much larger pedagogical forum. The most common models of General Assembly, Spokes Council, and their derivatives are employed in thousands of localities, sometimes spontaneously and for purposes wholly unrelated to the issues du jour of the nearest Occupy “chapter”, because there is an implicit understanding as to how these models are more effective than traditional, vertically integrated structures.
But implicit understanding alone is never enough. Only direct, strategic action and persuasion against all oppression—maximal utilization of one’s agency and empathetic capacity—is enough. We must be unrelenting and explicit in our declarations of the capacity that self-organizing associations have for effecting positive change on every political axis fathomable, performing horizontalism in contrast with the usual tacit acceptance of “light” or “normal” domination. We also need to work with models of association that wholeheartedly accept their situationality and automatically dissolve as they are no longer needed, because this leads to the creation of more participatory institutions, and thus more variance in the nature of our participatory institutions. Without variance, the pedagogy of consensus deteriorates, the conversation stagnates, and the alternative structures that we build get gobbled up and reworked by existing systemic inequalities. Think 501(c)(4)s, police unions, and Super PACs.
Unrelenting action and persuasion is within Lenin’s ideological territory, but the adoption of increasingly self-destructing models of association is not. He describes his dual power as “a revolutionary dictatorship, i.e., a power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative of the people from below, and not on a law enacted by a centralised state power”. To him, dual power is apparently not much more than a subset of traditional civil war boxed into Marxian class designations. He saw that as newer institutions gain socioeconomic potency, the old guard institutions lose a proportionate amount of agency over the body politic, and then he resigned this revelation to the revolutionary possibilities and sociological frameworks available to Russia c.1917.
Granted, formalizing the struggle in this manner—in terms of labor—is rhetorically effective when contrasted with capitalist inequalities. Though the distribution of prizes that have been won by Marxist and quasi-Marxist working class liberation efforts is biased heavily towards white European men, the conceptual underpinnings have shown themselves to be powerfully anti-tyrannical at least within the systemic exploitation of capitalism, which is not insignificant considering that capitalism’s effects have now permeated all populated areas of the planet and its framework of exploitation has saturated the discourse of the noosphere.
Furthermore, the instigatory factors for civil war and for dual power are complex enough that proclaiming the two scenarios mutually exclusive would be specious at best. It could even be argued that any social shift is a civil war of sorts, and that dual power is another strict definitional subset of it. But the crux of the matter is that, unless we abstract civil war beyond its traditionally understood sense (which is a reasonable suggestion but beyond the purview of this piece), civil war is, despite rejection of specific policies and/or individuals, nevertheless a situation in which two sets of institutions are vying for a seat atop an existing governmental proto-structure. Lenin’s proletariat-powered civil war is a step in the right direction, rejecting more than just the current regime, but it still accepts a priori an arbitrary societal stratification of classes, limiting the discussion and subsequently the range of systemic inequalities that might be offset by the actions resulting from such discussion. It focuses all its persuasive energy on “destroy the bourgeoisie with the proletariat” that it totally neglects the idea that there could be ways in which to destroy power structures permanently and systemically. This is a serious ideological and strategic misstep, especially in an age of automation and intercommunication possibilities incomprehensible to even the most prescient denizens of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
So what, then, is missing? Since rejection of currently existing power structures isn’t enough for dual power to have significant conceptual weight, its definition must go beyond implying a point whereat parity of institutional agency (“duality”) is reached, expressing a second core realization:
Achievement of institutional parity is inherent to the dual power undertaking because to empower communities in any way is to directly seize tangible power from existing structures, delegitimizing them through the propagation of new interpretations of socioeconomic power.
Lenin seemed to understand this as it applied to socialism vs. capitalism, but the possibility that the boundaries of Marxian classes could be almost as self-limiting in scope and dimensionality as capitalist abstractions eluded him. If we continue to represent the global struggles of today in terms of this outdated stratification, we limit the agency of our decision-making processes, relegating their purview to certain sectors of society by pointlessly expressing a willingness to stay within at least some of the sociocultural paradigmatic bounds of the current system. This is an unforgivable dismissal of the intersectionality of oppressions.
The outspoken social manipulation efforts of government may not, prima facie, resemble, say, the internal hierarchy of many activist organizations and unions which simultaneously maintain an external focus on equality. But the mere introspective recognition of this parallel is self-destructive, because in its acceptance of inaction it places far too much importance on achieving numerical superiority. Equally if not more important is the revolutionary effort’s ability to facilitate the evolution in its own internal makeup.
Dual power, including Lenin’s own formalization of it, is predicated on the evidence that control over the means of production is never set in stone and can be shifted around in various manners, so ignoring the higher-order effects of the creation of alternatives is just too damn problematic. It is partially that lack of total control of physical objects that provides a hint of productive breathing room whereby new alternative structures can exist and flourish and expand, yet social control can and does resonate on its own accord, as pure meme—or as close to purity as meme can get. The most striking and pervasive example of this is the world’s obsession with analyzing the methods of human interaction using one particular metric abstraction of social control, fiat money, and the proselytization of these analyses with a grossly misappropriated “scientific” attitude.
We see that even in the most maximum security prisons where the ownership of physical objects is close to impossible for a prisoner to manipulate, rapid political shift manages to occur via the unadulterated power of social reorganization. From a global perspective, the social agency of a prisoner is comparatively minuscule to that of a non-prisoner, but only a prison with security so tight to the point of completely ruling out the possibility of a mass planned escape could say that it comes close to outright owning the prisoners’ control over the means of production globally. The only way a prisoner’s control over the means of production can be completely eradicated is to place them in solitary confinement and cut off all visitation and communication with the outside world. And still, as we have seen in the case of Bradley Manning, the total destruction of someone’s agency, death or no death, can have reverberatory martyrdom effects that result in the oppressive institution losing far more control over social order than it sought to gain.
Using that sort of agency sacrifice effectively as a tactic towards the redistribution of socioeconomic power is difficult, and it goes without saying that the sacrifice of agency is patently immoral unless done willingly. But agency sacrifice, horizontal coordination processes, and a million other “unconventional” tactics must be recognized as the wholly rational political hacks they can be. To banish unconventionality from the realms of politics and revolution because it doesn’t play by the rules of the early industrial world’s revolutions is to have already admitted defeat on nearly every front. The revolutionary milieu needs to become more jaded about the effectiveness of overdone strategies, particularly the numbers games of stockpiling pitchforks and enraging the working class with truisms. Partly this is because the contemporary military state has become exceedingly efficient at crushing them, but mostly it’s because they make no effort to change the oppressive dynamics of direct human interaction, limiting themselves to the reform of indirectly oppressive interaction dynamics of monetary and state oppression. Working class rhetoric seeks to end capitalism (some of it, at any rate), but it doesn’t, on its own, make direct motions toward the end of racism, patriarchy, transphobia, heteronormativity, and so many other oppressive dynamics, many of which have a collective voice too small to have entered common language (if they have a collective voice at all).
So let’s strike the model of dual power as a proletarian revolutionary strategy and reimagine it as a spectrum of intensity by which the alternative institutions are more variable in their structure (and focus) than their oppressive predecessors. An ideal dual power scenario would be as Donna Haraway defines “cyborg unities” in A Cyborg Manifesto: “a revolution of social relations in the oikos”, a shifting milieu which is “no longer structured by the polarity of public and private”. Such a scenario would be a sudden mass migration of global economic reliance to new structures which: 1) totally avoids violent confrontation; 2) results in definitive, qualitative improvement in terms of both maximization of expressive freedom and widespread release from physical and cognitive duress; andmost importantly, 3) generates excess momentum and efficiently channels it into subsequent mass migrations that further the breakdown of systemic inequality.
The ethical worth of a revolutionary effort exhibits a direct relationship with how expansively the effort recognizes that it’s power is in its ability to modify its own structure and to insert myriad hairline fractures into its overall message without experiencing full breaks. This is not meant in a recklessly deontological sense; it’s more of an acceptance that higher-order, longer-term pragmatism often arises on societal, communal, and other interpersonal scales before all the individuals involved can formulate why that might be the case. Black swans abound. If all the individuals affected by a revolution knew why there was revolution, the revolution would have already happened. There are things you don’t know about other people’s situations, and they don’t exactly have time to stick around explaining themselves to you while it gets worse for them. This is the rule, not the exception, and the way to deal with it is to engage in strategized, empathetic actions so that a coherent mutual understanding is fostered at and between all societal strata.
What surprised most people about Occupy Sandy was not the fact that people sometimes do things to help other people. It was the fact that its underlying structure of disaster relief coordination came out of a community whose most outspoken rhetoric is one of resistance to bad structures instead of the construction of alternative ones. (Of course, that the message of Occupy has been exorbitantly garbled by media manipulation only serves as further evidence for the necessity of the resistance rhetoric.) Where the “official” relief organizations are failing miserably, horizontal coordination processes normally “meant” for planning demonstrations or acts of civil disobedience have stepped in and revealed themselves as undeniably malleable, efficiently redirecting good-willed momentum towards rebuilding shattered communities.
Do not expect this to be a one-off charity effort before we return to the alienation, monotony, and forced normalcy of our daily lives under the delusional austerity measures squeezed out, as if litany begets agency, in the dying breaths of the powerful in this late-capitalist society. In Occupy Sandy’s case, the catalyst for mutual aid is environmental disaster, but the empathy is innate to humanity, and the momentum is a product of huge communal networks fostered in large part over the past year for a wide variety of social and economic campaigns. As the systems of comfort via exploitation that we’ve grown accustomed to are faltering as their externalized wastefulness comes back to bite them, we are increasingly turning to malleable, bottom-up organizational systems, systems which replace themselves so frequently that they become defined by the replacement process itself. If the replacement was surprising this time, it shouldn’t be next time.
These effective coordination processes must be seen for what they are: the lossless merger of empathy and efficiency. Yes, such a thing is possible. They are prototypes for a world of self-determined association and increased capacity for all non-oppressive forms of individual and group expression. The models underlying decentralized aid and decentralized opposition are marginally distinct, if at all, so it is meaningless to say that the construction efforts resulting from them are good and the resistance efforts are bad. The declaration of actions as good or bad from the perspective of simply whether or not existing political structures will be subverted rather than why and how much those structures will be subverted has no basis in historical reality or any metaethical system untainted by bland patriotism.
Lenin’s dual power exemplifies perfectly Tolstoy’s frustration that “in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself”. Despite the claim that the new government was “an entirely different kind of power from the one that generally exists”, we see today a crisp image of hindsight through a 95-year lens and the filter of our updated dual power framework, and we find it regrettably not much different in most respects. We find that the precipice of institutional parity is the most dangerous of revolutionary epochs: a maelstrom of vanguards, coup d’états, and so many other disruptions, perversions, and inversions of the revolutionary equalization of power. Given that large-scale, expansive tyranny has, on numerous occasions throughout all of history, been the direct result of revolutionary movements being enticed by the potentials of institutional parity, it need be made abundantly clear that if the oppressions which are the ethical impetus for revolt are to be prevented from re-emerging post-revolution (or morphing into new, equally injurious oppressions), power grabs must be avoided insofar as they move the alternative institutions nearer to parity.
Of course, the ease with which the nation state engages in preemptive violence should by no means be ignored, least of all during a period in which its authority is being subverted and supplanted by something better. It should be noted that this is where community defense and worker support come into the picture as agents for dual power—the former as an alternative to the state, the latter as an alternative to the corporation. But that said, a resilient dual power undertaking must be internalized as a recursive process, as critical towards its internal facets as it is towards the powers that be—not a revolution but a stack of revolutions upon revolutions upon revolutions, all pointing out each other’s incompatible praxes towards liberation and updating each other per empathetic consensus.
The interplay of the oppressive tendencies of individuals is not an ethical wound to be patched up by the state, and the oppressive tendencies of the state cannot be patched up by the lighter, seemingly orthogonal oppressions of unionized labor. Such rationales are reminiscent of and should be no more tolerated than those of the most fundamentalist religious evangelism. The reality is that oppressive tendencies congeal en masse from the level of the individual into such abstractions as the state, the corporation, the colonization force, the patriarchy, and every other archy. Even the most crucial anti-state, anti-corporate, and anti-colonization efforts must seek to alleviate the requisites for their own existence, lest they find themselves, down the line, not readily differentiable from the state, the corporation, or the colonizers they once fought.
A new institution, however horizontal, cannot truly imagine itself to be a dual power institution if its existence hinges on a societal backdrop of other institutions to supplant. Such an institution is merely reactionary, and while it may be required to effectively combat the extreme inequalities of the short term, it must be kept in check and supplanted as it begins to lag behind its sibling institutions in terms of the frequency and intensity of its internal revolutions—in terms of its own recursive duality. The goal of every revolutionary phase must not merely be palpable shift toward egalitarian and practical control of the means of production; it must also necessarily imply a continuation of the breakdown of infrastructural and social hierarchies, a catalysis of more revolution down the line.
Dual power is the meta-revolution against the disguised stagnation of generational political cyclicality. To whatever extent a given revolutionary effort does not catalyze recursive revolution, that effort is a delayed reversion to the status quo and cannot reasonably assert its alignment to the updated dual power ideal—it is to use the comfortable apathy of majority to say “oh, we’ll just deal with that ‘other’ stuff later”.
Nope. We’re dealing with it now. All of it.