an international
peer-reviewed journal
ISSN 2041-3254

Policy and Planning

by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney
19 Apr 2010 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Commons

Let’s get together, get some land
Raise our food, like the man
Save our money like the mob
Put up the factory on the job

James Brown, “Funky President

The hope that Cornel West wrote about in Social Text in 1984[1] was not destined to become policy in 2008. The ones who practiced it, within and against the grain of every imposed contingency, always had a plan. In and out of the depths of Reaganism, against the backdrop and by way of a resuscitory irruption into politics that Jesse Jackson could be said both to have symbolized and quelled, something West indexes as black radicalism, which “hopes against hope…in order to survive in the deplorable present” (p.10-11), asserts a metapolitical surrealism that sees and sees through the evidence of mass incapacity, cutting the despair it breeds. Exuberantly metacritical hope has always exceeded every immediate circumstance in its incalculably varied everyday enactments of the fugitive art of the impossible. This art is practiced on and over the edge of politics, beneath its ground, in animative and improvisatory decomposition of its inert body. It emerges as an ensemblic stand, a kinetic set of positions, but also takes the form of embodied notation, study, score. Its encoded noise is hidden in plain sight from the ones who refuse to see and hear—even while placing under constant surveillance—the thing whose repressive imitation they call for and are. Now, a quarter century after West’s analysis, after an intervening iteration that had the nerve to call hope home while serially disavowing it and helping to extend and prepare its almost total eclipse, the remains of American politics exudes hope once again. Having seemingly lost its redoubled edge while settling in and for the carceral techniques of the possible, having thereby unwittingly become the privileged mode of expression of a kind of despair, hope appears now simply to be a matter of policy. Policy, on the other hand, now comes into view as no simple matter.

By policy we mean not a particular policy, as in company policy or public policy, but rather policy as something in contradistinction to planning. By policy we mean a resistance to the commons from above, arrayed in the exclusive and exclusionary uniform/ity of imposed consensus, that both denies and at the very same time seeks to destroy the ongoing plans, the fugitive initiations, the black operations of the multitude.[2] As a resistance from above, policy is a class phenomenon because it is the means to advantage in the post-fordist economy, a means that takes on the character of politics in an economy dominated structurally by immaterial labour. This economy is powered by the constant insistence on a radical contingency producing a steady risk for all organic and non-organic forms, a risk that allows work against risk to be harvested indefinitely.

Policy is the form that opportunism takes in this environment. It is a demonstration of willingness to be made contingent and to make contingent all around you by demonstrating an embrace of the radically extra-economic, political character of command today.[3] It is a demonstration designed to separate you from others, in the interest of a universality reduced to private property that is not yours, for your own survival, for your own advantage in this environment. Opportunism sees no other way, has no alternative, but separates itself by its own vision, its ability to see the future of its own survival in this turmoil against those who cannot imagine surviving in this turmoil (even if they must all the time) and are thus said by policy to lack vision, and in the most extreme cases to be without interests, on the one hand, and in capable of disinterestedness, on the other.[4] Every utterance of policy, no matter its intention or content, is first and foremost a demonstration of one’s ability to be close to the top in the hierarchy of the post-fordist economy. (Thus every utterance of policy on the radical Left is immediately contradiction.)

As an operation from above designed to make the multitude productive for capital, policy must first deal with the fact that the multitude is already productive for itself. This productive imagination is its genius, it’s impossible, and nevertheless material, collective head. And this is a problem because plans are afoot, black operations are in effect, and in the undercommons, all the organizing is done. The multitude uses every quiet moment, every peace, every security, every front porch and sundown to plan, to launch, to improvise an operation. It is difficult for policy to deny these plans directly, to ignore these operations, to pretend that those already in motion need to stop and get a vision, to contend that base communities for escape need to believe in escape. And if this is difficult for policy then so too is the next and crucial step, teaching the value of radical contingency, teaching how to participate in change from above. Of course, some plans can be dismissed – plans hatched darker than blue, on the criminal side, out of love. But most will instead require another approach.

So what is left for those who want to dwell in policy? Obviously the most salient and consistent aspect of policy – help and correction. Policy will help. Policy will help with the plan, and even more policy will correct the planners. Policy will discover what is not yet theorized, what is not yet fully contingent, and most importantly what is not yet legible. Policy is correction. Policy distinguishes itself from planning by distinguishing those who dwell in policy and fix things, from those who dwell in planning and must be fixed. This is the first rule of policy. It fixes others. In an extension of Foucault we might say of this first rule that it remains concerned with how to be governed just right, how to fix others in a position of equilibrium, even if this today requires constant recalibration. But the objects of this constant adjustment provoke this attention because they just don’t want to govern at all.

And because such policy emerges materially from post-fordist opportunism, policy must optimally for each policy-maker fix others as others, as those who have not just made an error in planning (or indeed an error by planning) but who are themselves in error. And from the perspective of policy, of this post-fordist opportunism, there is indeed something wrong with the multitude. They are out of joint – instead of constantly positing their position in contingency, they seek solidity, a place from which to plan, some ground on which to imagine, some love on which to count. Nor is this just a political problem from the point of view of policy, but an ontological one. Seeking fixity, finding a steady place from which to launch a plan, hatch an escape signals a problem of essentialism, of beings who think and act like they are something in particular, like they are somebody, although at the same time that something is, from the perspective of policy, whatever you say I am.

To get these planners out of this problem of essentialism, this fixity and repose, this security and base, they have to come to imagine they can be more, they can do more, they can change, they can be changed. Because right now, there is something wrong with them. We know there is something wrong with them because they keep making plans. And plans fail. Plans fail because that is policy. Plans must fail because planners must fail. Planners are static, essential, just surviving. They do not see clearly. They hear things. They lack perspective. They fail to see the complexity. Planners have no vision, no real hope for the future, just a plan here and now, an actually existing plan.

They need hope. They need vision. They need to have their sights lifted above the furtive plans and night launches of their despairing lives. Vision. Because from the perspective of policy it is too dark in there to see, in the black heart of the multitude. You can hear something, you can feel something, feel people going about their own business in there, feel them present at their own making. But hope can lift them above ground into the light, out of the shadows, away from these dark senses.

Whether the hope is Fanonian redemption or Arendtian revaluation, policy will fix these humans. Whether they lack consciousness or politics, utopianism or common sense, hope has arrived. With new vision, planners will become participants. And participants will be taught to reject essence for contingency, as if planning and improvisation, flexibility and fixity, and complexity and simplicity were opposed within an imposed composition there is no choice but to inhabit, as some exilic home. All that could not be seen in the dark heart of the multitude will be supposed absent as policy checks its own imagination. But most of all they will participate. Policy is a mass effort. Left intellectuals will write articles in the newspapers. Philosophers will hold conferences on new utopias. Bloggers will debate. Politicians will surf. Change is the only constant here, the only constant of policy. Participating in change is the second rule of policy.

Now hope is an orientation toward this participation in change, this participation as change. This is the hope policy gives to the multitude, a chance to stop digging, and start circulating. Policy not only offers this hope, but enacts it. Those who dwell in policy do so not just by invoking contingency but riding it, by in a sense, proving it.

Those who dwell in policy are prepared. They are legible to change, liable to change, lendable to change. Policy is not so much a position as a disposition, a disposition toward display. This is why policy’s chief manifestation is governance.

Governance should not be confused with government or governmentality. Governance is the new form of expropriation. It is the provocation of a certain kind of display, a display of interests as disinterestedness, a display of convertibility, a display of legibility. Governance offers a forum for policy, for bidding oneself, auctioning oneself, to post-fordist production. Governance is harvesting of immaterial labour but a willing harvest, a death drive of labour. As capital cannot know directly affect, thought, sociality, imagination, it must instead prospect for these in order to extract and abstract them as labour. This is the real bio-prospecting. Governance, the voluntary but dissociative offering up of interests, willing participation in the general privacy and privation, grants capital this knowledge, this wealth-making capacity. Who is more keen on governance than the dweller in policy? On the new governance of universities, hospitals, corporations, governments and prisoners, on the governance of NGO’s, of Africa, of peace processes? Policy offers to help by offering its own interests, and if it really seeks to be valuable, provoking others to offer up their own interests too.

But governance despite its own hopes to universality, is for the initiated, for those who know how to articulate interests disinterestedly, who know why they vote (not because someone is black or female but because he or she is smart), who have opinions and want to be taken seriously by serious people. In the mean time, policy also orders the quotidian sphere of aborted plans. Policy posits curriculum against study, child development against play, careers against jobs. It posits voice against voices, and gregariousness against friendship. Policy posits the public sphere, and the counter-public sphere, and the black public sphere against the illegal occupation of the illegitimately privatized.

Policy is not the one against the many, the cynical against the romantic, or the pragmatic against the principled. It is simply baseless vision. It is against all conservation, all rest, all gathering, cooking, drinking and smoking if they lead to marronage. Policy’s vision is to break it up, move along, get ambition and give to your children. Policy’s hope is that there will be more policy, more participation, more change. However, there is also a danger in all this participation, a danger of crisis.

When the multitude participates in policy without first being fixed, this leads to crisis. Participation without fully entering the enlightenment, without fully functioning families, without financial responsibility, without respect for the rule of law, without distance and irony, participation that is too loud, too fat, too loving, too full, too flowing, too dread. This leads to crisis. People are in crisis. Economies are in crisis. We are facing an unprecedented crisis, a crisis of participation, a crisis of faith. Is there any hope? Yes, there is, if we can pull together, if we can share a vision of change. For policy, any crisis in the productivity of radical contingency is a crisis in participation, which is to say, a crisis provoked by the wrong participation of the multitude. This is the third rule of policy.

The crisis of the credit crunch cause by sub-prime debtors, the crisis of race in the U.S. elections produced by Reverend Wright and Bernie Mac, the crisis in the Middle East produced by Hamas, the crisis of obesity produced by unhealthy eaters, the crisis of the environment produced by Chinese and Indians, are all instances of uncorrected, unmanaged participation. If the multitude is to stop its sneaky plans only to participate in this way, crisis is inevitable. But policy diagnoses the problem: participation must be hopeful, it must have vision, it must embrace change. Participants must be fashioned who are hopeful, visionary, change agents. Those who dwell in policy will lead the way, toward concrete changes in the face of the crisis.

Be smart. Believe in change. This is what we have been waiting for. It’s time for the Left to offer solutions. Now’s the time, before its night again, and you start hearing D.O.C. They got a secret plan of their own and they won’t be corrected. Before you get stopped by KRS One and asked for your plan, before Storm says ‘holla if you understand my plan ladies.’ Before you start singing another half-illiterate fantasy. Before you are in the ongoing amplification at the dark heart of the multitude, the operations in its soft centre. Before someone says let’s get together and get some land, where we’ll still plan to be communist about communism, still plan to be unreconstructed about reconstruction and still plan to be absolute about abolition. Policy can’t see it, policy can’t read it, but it’s intelligible if you got a plan.


This article was originally posted in Roundtable: Research Architecture

Stefano Harney, Chair in Strategy, Culture & Society, is the Director of Global Learning for the School of Business and Management, Queen Mary, University of London. He has held a number of visiting positions including in Sociology at Gadja Mada University in Indonesia, in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and in the Centre for Labour Studies at State University of New York. His new book, <em>Governance and Criminality</em> (Routledge, forthcoming) focuses on the accumulation of immaterial labour. His last book, <em>State Work: Public Administration and Mass Intellectuality</em> (Duke, 2002) provided a phenomenology of labour in the state as a way to approach the contemporary state-form.


1. Cornel West, “Reconstructing the American Left: The Challenge of Jesse Jackson,” Social Text 11 (1984), 3-19 [↑]

2. Fred Moten, “Black Op”, PMLA, 123:5 (2008): 1743-7. [↑]

3. For discussion of command as a term of economy see Toni Negri in The Porcelain Workshop (2008), and see Paolo Virno on opportunism in A Grammar of the Multitude (2006). [↑]

4. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, “Blackness and Governance” in After Foucault, ed. Patricia Clough (Duke University Press, 2009). [↑]


Fred Moten is an Associate Professor of English, African and African-American Studies, Duke University. He works at the intersection of black studies, performance studies, poetry and critical theory. He is author of Arkansas (Pressed Wafer Press, 2000), In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press, 2003), I ran from it but was still in it (Cusp Books, 2007), Hughson’s Tavern (Leon Works, 2008) and B. Jenkins (Duke University Press, 2010).
All posts by: Fred Moten | Email | Website

Stefano Harney, Chair in Strategy, Culture & Society, is the Director of Global Learning for the School of Business and Management, Queen Mary, University of London. He has held a number of visiting positions including in Sociology at Gadja Mada University in Indonesia, in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and in the Centre for Labour Studies at State University of New York. His new book, Governance and Criminality (Routledge, forthcoming) focuses on the accumulation of immaterial labour. His last book, State Work: Public Administration and Mass Intellectuality (Duke, 2002) provided a phenomenology of labour in the state as a way to approach the contemporary state-form.
All posts by: Stefano Harney | Email | Website

Share Post:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Technorati
  • StumbleUpon
  • MySpace
  • FriendFeed
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Netvibes
  • SphereIt
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Yahoo! Bookmarks
  • Live
  • RSS

Comments are closed.