Spheres of Insurrection: Notes on Decolonizing the Unconscious

Suely Rolnik / Translated by Sergio Delgado Moya
July 2023

As the globalized regime of neoliberal capitalism consolidates its grip on the world, it refines the micropolitics proper to the capitalist system and makes it more perverse. This micropolitics involves the appropriation – what Suely Rolnik calls the “pimping” – of life, as it turns the life drive itself away from creation and cooperation and towards the deadening, destructive practice necessary for capital accumulation. This dynamic is the engine of what Rolnik calls the colonial-capitalistic unconscious regime. She also identifies the conditions necessary to fight against this regime – namely, a reappropriation of the life drive, the energetic basis at the heart of all life forms, human life included, and the principal source of extraction for capitalism.

Drawing on examples from across the Americas, including Brazil and the United States, Rolnik examines the circumstances that have given rise to regressive, reactionary governments throughout the world. These circumstances include, at the macro level, an alliance between neoliberalism and extreme conservatism and, at the micro level, a crisis of the hegemonic subject in the face of the emergent empowerment of marginalized communities that practice other modes of subjectivation.

This crucial book by one of the most prominent intellectuals in Latin America today will be of great value to anyone interested in contemporary politics and social struggles.

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The Abuse of Life

As is well known, the central operation of the capitalist economy is the exploitation of the workforce and of the cooperation intrinsic to production. Its purpose is extracting surplus value. We can refer to this operation as a form of “pimping,” to use a word that more precisely names the frequency of the vibration of its effects on our bodies. This operation has changed along with the different metamorphoses of the regime over the course of the five centuries of its existence. In its new version, it is life itself that capital appropriates. More precisely, what the regime appropriates is the essence of life, its potency of creation of new forms, at the exact moment that the impulse of this potency emerges. In other words, what gets pimped by capitalism is the germinating potency of life itself. The regime also appropriates the cooperation on which this potency depends for the germination of life to be completed. The vital force of creation and cooperation is thus channeled by capitalism towards the construction of a world conceived according to its objectives.

The drive to create, individually and collectively, new forms of existence; the functions of this drive and its codes, its representations: this is what the new version of capitalism exploits, transforming it into its source of propulsion. What follows is that the source from which the regime extracts its force is not merely economic but also, intrinsically and indissociably, cultural and subjective, if not ontological, which grants it a perverse power, more expansive, more subtle, and more difficult to counteract.

Faced with this scenario, it is evidently not enough to act in the macropolitical sphere, where the whole spectrum of the political left traditionally acts, especially the institutionalized segment of it (this explains their impotence vis-à-vis the current courses pursued by capitalism). According to the vision introduced by authors who have worked through the new relationship between capital and work by focusing on the appropriation of the potency of creation by capital – authors such as Toni Negri and Michael Hardt,[i] who designated the regime’s new fold as “cognitive capitalism” – resistance today consists of an effort of collective reappropriation of that potency in order to build what the authors call “the common.”[ii]

If we take this concept a bit further, we can define the common as the immanent field of the life drive of a social body when it takes this drive into its own hands, in a way that steers it towards the creation of modes of existence that can embody what demands to come through. Moreover, according to Hardt and Negri, changes in the forms of reality emerge from the construction of the common. Their argument is that if, on the one hand, during industrial capitalism, the forms of the workforce and their cooperation – in this case, organized as an assembly line – were pre-defined by capital, in the mode of expropriation of that drive proper to the new version of the regime, its forms are not predetermined, because what capital appropriates is precisely the potency of the construction of these forms. Even though, according to Hardt and Negri, this opens the possibility of autonomy in the guidance of the life drive, this drive is nonetheless diverted in favor of the production of settings for the accumulation of capital.

Furthermore, according to the authors, and assuming the vital potency belongs to those who work, it is precisely the experience of its relative autonomy that creates conditions favorable to its reappropriation. Resuming our dialogue with them, we may add that it is based on a desire-driven, individual and cooperative reappropriation of the ethical destiny of the vital drive[iii] – that is, on its ontological reappropriation – that a collective rerouting of this drive (away from its abuse by capitalism) can take place in the direction of an ethics of existence. And yet, as Hardt and Negri point out, its reappropriation by society remains virtual so long as it does not find its forms of actualization. The search for these forms depends on a collective will to act towards the construction of the common, which is not given a priori.

It is precisely in that direction that some of the collective movements I reference above (which erupted in the mid-1990s and have burst onto the scene at different moments ever since) have been moving, in activism and, not coincidentally, in art (the borders that separate activism and art have become less and less discernible). In this transterritoriality, favorable conditions are created both for the mobilization of the potency of creation of activism and for the micropolitical potency of artistic practices. Despite having their essence precisely in that potency, artistic practices now tend to find themselves destitute of it, pimped as they are in the service of capital, which makes the domain of art a privileged source of expropriation.

A sense of restlessness drives the writing of this essay. Though we take an important step forward when we recognize, like the authors cited above, that it isn’t enough to resist the current regime macropolitically, and that it’s also necessary to act towards reappropriating the force of creation and cooperation – which is to say that it’s also necessary to act micropolitically – to recognize this rationally does not guarantee effective actions in that direction. In fact, the reappropriation of the drive to creation is only effectuated when it guides the actions of desire in such a way that it imprints upon them their direction and their mode of relating to the other.

These kinds of actions, however, tend to crash against the barrier of the politics of production of both subjectivity and desire inherent to the current regime. As in any other regime, the mode of subjectivation produced in it is what gives the regime its existential consistency, without which it could not sustain itself. The two go hand in hand. In the case of the new fold of the colonial-capitalistic regime, the abuse of the life drive prevents us from recognizing this drive as ours, which makes its reappropriation something less obvious than reason would hope for. In light of this, we clearly cannot take back the reins of that potency by a simple edict of the will, imperious as the will may be. Nor can we reclaim it by means of consciousness, regardless of how lucid or well intentioned consciousness is. It is also not possible to collectively reappropriate that potency as one single, supposedly natural body, allegedly given a priori, and, furthermore, we cannot do this in absolute synergy with all the elements that constitute this body (these are the pretensions of the messianic harbingers of paradise on Earth).

Resistance must take place in the very field constituted by the politics of the production of subjectivity and desire dominant in the regime in its contemporary version, which is another way of saying that resistance must take place in the regime that dominates within us. This is not something that will fall in our laps like some gift from heaven, and neither is it something we will find in some promised land. On the contrary, this is a territory that must be tirelessly conquered and constructed in every human existence that comprises a society, and it necessarily involves its relational universe. In this mode of resistance, temporary communities are formed, within which conditions for the construction of the common emerge. These communities, however, never occupy the social body as a whole, for this body is made and unmade in the relentless clash between different types of forces.

But How to Free life from its Pimping?

To rise in revolt in this territory implies a diagnosis of the standing mode of subjectivation and of the regime of the unconscious proper to it. It also requires us to find out where and how to make viable a displacement of the principle that governs this regime. Without this work, the much lauded call for the collective reappropriation of the creative force (as a form of prevention against the pathology of the present) will always remain confined to the laboratory of ideas. It will run the risk of remaining confined to the plane of the imaginary, confined to its pleasant and encouraging illusions – capturing devices in and of themselves.

I propose the term “colonial-capitalistic unconscious” to designate the politics of the unconscious that is dominant in this regime and that runs throughout its history, shifting nothing but its modalities together with its transmutations and its forms of abuse of the vital force of creation and cooperation. In that sense, we can also refer to this politics as a “pimp colonial-capitalistic-unconscious,” for the reasons outlined above. More likely than not, the resistance to that regime of the unconscious is what Deleuze and Guattari had in mind when they called for a protest of the unconciousnesses in 1972, when the work of collectively elaborating the bold experience of May 1968 was just dawning and, simultaneously, when the rise to power of the new regime was sending its first, still nebulous signals.

The intent behind the present text is to probe the current modality of the pimp-colonial unconscious introduced by financialized and neoliberal capitalism, which is defined, I insist, by the abduction of the creating force at the very source of its world-germinating impulse. But how to dodge this regime of the unconscious within ourselves and in our surroundings? In other words, what are the protests of the unconsciousnesses proposed by Deleuze and Guattari? Answering this question demands a kind of research involving our own subjective experience. We must look within ourselves for access points to the potency of creation: the source of the drive-movement that guides the actions of desire in its various destinies. This is a work of experimentation on the self that demands constant attention. In this kind of research, the formulation of ideas is inseparable from a process of subjectivation where the reappropriation of this potency becomes possible for brief and fleeting moments, moments that gradually become longer, more frequent, and more consistent as we move forward with this work.

Excerpt from “Colonial-Capitalistic Unconscious” in Spheres of Insurrection: Notes on Decolonizing the Unconscious, 3-7, Polity Press, 2023, Translated by Sergio Delgado Moya.

[i] On the matter of this radical transformation of the very notion of work, see the writings of Toni Negri and Michael Hardt, especially the trilogy composed of Empire (2000), Multitude (2004), and Commonwealth (2009). The specific ideas by these authors with which I engage here unfold from the works co-authored by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980).

[ii] The notion of “the common” has been broached by various authors from different perspectives. The problematization of this notion in the present volume is presented in dialogue with the perspective adopted by Hardt and Negri. I add an aesthetic and, principally, a clinical dimension to their way of conceiving the construction of the common; both are intrinsic, in my view, to its construction.

[iii] The idea of an “ethical destiny of the drive,” inspired by Jacques Lacan, in the sense suggested here, comes from the work of the Brazilian psychoanalyst and theoretician João Perci Schiavon, who has been in the process of redesigning the architecture of psychoanalysis on the basis of his reading not just of the work of Lacan and Freud but also of the writings by Félix Guattari, of those he co-authored with Gilles Deleuze, and of the philosophical lineage unfolded by these authors. In particular, see his doctoral dissertation, “Pragmatismo Pulsional” (Pragmatism of the drive), defended in 2007 in the PhD program of clinical psychology at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo. The dissertation was revised and published in book form: Pragmatismo Pulsional (São Paulo, n-1 Edições, 2019). See also his article, “Pragmatismo Cultural,” Cadernos de Subjetividade: Revista do Núcleo de Estudos e Pesquisas da Subjetividade (2010): 124–31.

About the Author

Suely Rolnik is a psychoanalyst and Professor of Clinical Psychology at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo.