Coldness and Cruelty in the Time of Insurrection

Introduction | Ch. 1 | Ch. 2 | Ch. 3

Chapter Three: Masochism and Sadism

“In this way the ramparts of the great world also will be breached and collapse in crumbling ruin about us. Already it is far past its prime. The earth, which generated every living species and once brought forth from its womb the bodies of huge beasts, has now scarcely strength to generate animalcules… Already the ploughman of ripe years shakes his head with many a sigh that his heavy labours have gone for nothing; and, when he compares the present with the past, he often cries up his father’s luck and grumbles that past generations, when men were old-fashioned and god-fearing, supported life easily enough on their small farms, though one man’s holding was then far less than now. In the same despondent vein, the cultivator of old and wilted vines decries the trend of the times and rails at heaven. He does not realize that everything is gradually decaying and nearing its end, worn out by old age.”

Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Limited, 1951), pp. 94–95.

Are we ready to define the political masochist more clearly, and less tautologically? I should think we are. The political masochist is the one who deploys a discourse of improvement to tranquillise those whose anger might otherwise disrupt the functioning of the system. While this discourse may look like supplication, submission, deference, solidarity, or even anger at the system itself, if it remains within the framework of reproducing that same system (even if radically changed) it is a masochistic discourse by my definition. We have seen that the fact that the insurrectionary destruction of the social body is not itself a way to create a better world is not an objection to our critique, since everything we do is mere timewasting, theatre, distraction—until the biosphere implodes.

If you’ll permit a bit of the psychoanalysis that I claimed in the introduction to abhor—the truth is the political masochist is afraid to die. They fear the decay and destruction of everything they have ever known, everything familiar and comfortable, and yes, even our miserable world, with its poverty and disease, its plastics and chlorofluorocarbons, its skyrocketing average temperatures and plummeting biodiversity, even this can be comfortable to a mind afraid of death. ‘Better than the alternative,’ says the civilised one when asked about the value of life. So when they see the insurrectionary and jouisseur take to the streets jubilantly, disinterested in life’s supposed intrinsic value, this has our political masochist shitting and pissing their pants. There is something uncanny, disturbing, about this reckless abandonment to the wheel of fate, this becoming-mode of the insurrectionary, this disregard for the unimportant, that is, for bourgeois time and its stagnant reproduction.

In some sense, there’s nothing more obvious than the fact that the liberal is a masochist. They never seem to tire of failure, humiliation, beatings, subjugation, all sorts of embarrassments and mistakes. They stay losing, the liberals, and they never seem to reconsider their strategy. There’s something sad about it, really. Listening to a liberal in 2020 is like listening to a senile pensioner tell the most boring shaggy dog story conceivable. “If you agree with me, go to Joe 30330 and help me in this fight. Thank you very much.” The calls for civility, for the return to the expert-state, bipartisan co-operation, a narrowing of the Overton window, healthy democratic norms, separation of powers, public oversight, inquiries and reviews, accountability for civil servants—it’s just, well, embarrassing, isn’t it? The reactionary right recognise democracy is a useless fetter on their ambitions and, wherever they are in power, set about openly and brazenly doing away with it. The milquetoast liberal centre has no idea what to do with the state when they get it, and their essential role is, more or less, to pave the way for their reactionary successors by imposing economic misery on the masses while gifting economic power (that is, political power) to the wealthy few, all the while constructing security and surveillance apparatuses that our reactionaries are more than happy to inherit. In this, as in all things, our liberals are seriously behind the curve.

But remember, this is not our understanding of masochism. Masochism is not a simple relationship of submission to a supposedly stronger party. The masochist would never tolerate a truly sadistic torturer. “He does of course require a special “nature” in the woman torturer, but he needs to mould this nature, to educate and persuade it in accordance with his secret project, which could never be fulfilled with a sadistic woman… The woman torturer of masochism cannot be sadistic precisely because she is in the masochistic situation, she is an integral part of it, a realisation of the masochistic fantasy.”1 We understand masochism as a judicial and pedagogical situation in which the sufferer instructs and commands the torturer to harm them as a means to make it all the sweeter when they do that which is prohibited. The liberal says to the insurrectionary: ‘What terrible suffering you have endured! We can make that better for you. Tell us what you need. Use your words, now. Ah-ah-ah, that’s no way to make a point, is it? That’s no way to make a point at all. And, well, if you won’t come to the discussion table…’ Well, there’s the state for that: “Take Back the Streets: Crush Criminals. And by this I mean, of course, not “white collar criminals” or “inside traders” but violent street criminals – robbers, muggers, rapists, murderers. Cops must be unleashed, and allowed to administer instant punishment, subject of course to liability when they are in error. Take Back the Streets: Get Rid of the Bums. Again: unleash the cops to clear the streets of bums and vagrants. Where will they go? Who cares? Hopefully, they will disappear, that is, move from the ranks of the petted and cosseted bum class to the ranks of the productive members of society.” Liberals may scoff at being compared with Rothbard but, when it comes to the insurrection, they are one and the same.

To avoid this crushing fate, the insurrectionary must learn to speak—that is, cease to be an insurrectionary. There is certainly nothing wrong with California legislators introducing a bill that gives people of colour the right to sue a person who makes a false police report about them for daring to exist in a public space, but many of us don’t think too highly of the police whether a report is made falsely or not, and we don’t believe the police can be made a just and trustworthy institution by chipping away at some of their overtly racist and authoritarian elements. ‘Of course we’re not going to abolish the police, that’s ridiculous. We’ll reform it.’ You’ll do neither, not in any meaningful sense. To go one step further, we couldn’t care less about demographic representation in the civil institutions, and we know to legislate “against power” is always to play a trick (one that the legislators themselves do not have to be aware of) on the public. Deleuze says there are two known ways to overturn the law: “One is by ascending towards the principles: challenging the law as secondary, derived, borrowed or “general”; denouncing it as involving a second-hand principle which diverts an original force or usurps an original power.”2 This is the revolutionary overturning of the law, an ironic overturning, which reveals that the law as it stands does not truly embody the principles it espouses. But we have seen how this critique leads back to the law’s savage restoration—it is the principles themselves which are rotten, and it isn’t long before we see the reproduction of the same forces the insurrectionary reacts against: the old cause is dead, long live the new cause. “The other way, by contrast, is to overturn the law by descending towards the consequences, to which one submits with a too-perfect attention to detail. By adopting the law, a falsely submissive soul manages to evade it and to taste pleasures it was supposed to forbid.” This is, of course, the reformist or liberal-masochist overturning of the law, but we know that while this makes the law humorous, and certainly frees the individual from the power of the law, it does not overturn the law at the level of the social field, rather it causes the law of the would-be insurrectionary to turn back, to become once again the law of power, deployed with renewed vigour. We must, therefore, imagine a third way of overturning the law, an overturning immanent to the practice of insurrection, the throwing off of all arrangements in favour of an irrational jouissance or boundless hatred of the established order.

Actus nemini facit injuriam: “An act of law does no one wrong.” Whether ascending towards the principles or descending towards the consequences, these approaches to law become instruments of masochism at the level of the social field.

One might say that despite their mutual animosity, the revolutionary acts as a sort of ideological expansion pack to the liberal masochist’s suite of diversions and distractions. Just look at the way leftists fell in line behind Bernie in the US, or Corbyn in the UK. ‘It’s a step in the right direction,’ they’ll say. ‘It’s better than the alternative.’ Well, the latter may well be so, but a step in the right direction? If you’ll excuse the extended metaphor—to climb a mountain, one must climb a mountain. Walking around the base instead of sprinting back home may well be better for you if you ever choose to start, but it’s hardly going in the right direction—no, it’s going in circles. And so, what is liberal masochism? A technology of soft coercion, backed, ideally, by the power of the state. Evictions, extinctions, death from poverty and preventable disease—lord knows you can’t take it much longer, and so does the state. Surveillance tech, militarised police, data aggregation on a mass scale, the cutting-edge of propaganda and misinformation. Left-wing paranoiacs will tell you your enemy is always the intelligence services, but even your fellow citizens are cops: they hate you, wouldn’t sneeze if you were disappeared off the streets, save for a few impotent journalists, maybe, who’ll then advocate for the election of a party who’ll do the exact same thing. For that’s the nature of the state, the leviathan, sovereign, that soul-eater and despotic machine, law and order, always order, except where the flows scramble at the very limit only to bring you back into conformity. The masochist can be in control or controlled opposition and, in that sense, there is only really one class—the human class, and its inhuman enemies.

So much for the liberal-masochist. What of the reactionary? Where does the right-wing authoritarian or fascist fit into our system? We certainly never see the GOP attempt to communicate, sympathise, or express solidarity with the downtrodden. In fact, we see quite the opposite—fears and anxieties are kindled, the spectre of communism is invoked, law and order is claimed to be teetering on the edge of collapse. The reactionary is not concerned with soothing the enemy, but rallying the base. The enemy must be crushed, not coddled. Indeed, this is not masochism. Instead, we’ll turn to Deleuze’s analysis of sadism as it appears in his Coldness and Cruelty. For our purposes, it is worth quoting him at length:

It may seem obvious that the sadist and the masochist are destined to meet. The fact that the one enjoys inflicting while the other enjoys suffering pain seems to be such striking proof of their complementarity that it would be disappointing if the encounter did not take place. A popular joke tells of the meeting between a sadist and a masochist; the masochist says: “Hurt me.” The sadist replies: “No.” This is a par­ticularly stupid joke, not only because it is unrealistic but because it foolishly claims competence to pass judgment on the world of perversions. It is unrealistic because a genuine sadist could never tolerate a masochistic victim (one of the monks’ victims in Justine explains: “They wish to be certain their crimes cost tears; they would send away any girl who was to come here voluntarily.”)

Deleuze and von Sacher-Masoch, pp. 40–41.

And as he writes elsewhere:

“With Sade we witness an astonishing development of the demonstrative use of language. Demonstration as a higher func­tion of language makes its appearance between sequences of description, while the libertines are resting, or in the interval between two commands. One of the libertines will read out a severe pamphlet, or expound inexhaustible theories, or draft a constitution. Alternatively he may agree to hold a conversation or a discussion with his victim. Such moments are frequent, par­ticularly in Justine, where each of the heroine’s torturers uses her as a listener and confidante. The libertine may put on an act of trying to convince and persuade; he may even proselytize and gain new recruits (as in Philosophy in the Bedroom). But the intention to convince is merely apparent, for nothing is in fact more alien to the sadist than the wish to convince, to persuade, in short to educate. He is interested in something quite different, namely to demonstrate that reasoning itself is a form of violence, and that he is on the side of violence, however calm and logical he may be. He is not even attempting to prove anything to anyone, but to perform a demonstration related essentially to the solitude and omnipotence of its author. The point of the exercise is to show that the demonstration is identical to violence. It follows that the reasoning does not have to be shared by the person to whom it is addressed any more than pleasure is meant to be shared by the object from which it is derived. The acts of violence inflicted on the victims are a mere reflection of a higher form of violence to which the demonstration testifies.

Deleuze and von Sacher-Masoch, pp. 18–19.

We were quite right, then, to suspect the reactionary is not a masochist, but rather a sadist of the genuine type. The reactionary does not want to kiss and make friends with the liberals and minority groups he abhors. He hasn’t the slightest interest in beguiling them with a new social contract—he counts on expelling them from society completely, herding them together and driving them over the embankments. The violence is not a means to an end here, no: the violence is the point. The sadist demonstrates their pure reason, the summit-importance of the just society-to-be, with not a care in the world for whatever protest or complaint you might make. The recognition of the sadistic style and the threat it presents is what drives anti-fascists to violently oppose fascists where they appear: “Nothing to talk about.” Here we again see that the third way to overturn the law is neither ironic (revolutionary-masochistic) nor humorous (liberal-masochistic), but insurrectionary. The insurrectionary treats the masochist with indifference and the sadist with the utmost violence, but they share alike in the insurrectionary’s hatred, for it is a question of the opposition between chaos and law. This question is only rhetorical, for there is in reality no question at all: Chaos and law, repetition and law, insurrection and law, are by definition opposed, and only the law is a transient construction. Though there really is no sadomasochism from this standpoint, representing, as they do, totally opposed approaches to the social field, the sadist and the masochist are unified in their opposition to chaos and to the fear of disaster.

This is the vector of radicalisation that has been known to drive masochists to sadism. Schmitt’s insight was the recognition that the compromise-state, that liberal dream, could never hold for long. There would always be the yearning for seriousness from the so-called extremes, and so the political could never be a smooth topography, left to the administration of enlightened technocrats with no input from the people. Rather, the political would forever be a jagged and precarious landscape. A true sovereign would look to set up defences in this landscape and make sure the enemy was named, known, and reviled. When a masochist recognises this truth, they have a tendency to turn sadistic. Schmitt, as a coward and a reactionary-sadist, was therefore quite happy to align himself with the Nazi party, for he preferred seriousness from any political sector to the havoc of a lifeless liberalism, and he couldn’t abide the thought of society descending any further into chaos. Any liberal would sooner be a Schmitt than an insurrectionary, and you see this in the pseudo-resistance being held up against Trump today, by the sorts of people who flatter themselves that they wouldn’t have just stood by in the Third Reich. Therefore, in the same sense that the jouisseur and the insurrectionary are often interchangeable, there is a sense in which the sadist and the masochist are also interchangeable at the level of the social field. Biden: “I have said from the outset of recent protests that there is no place for violence and destruction of property. Peaceful protestors should be protected and arsonists and anarchists should be prosecuted.” Therefore it would be a mistake to draw a definite and explicit connection between masochism, sadism, and the position of the actor with respect to power, to say that sadism is for the sovereign and masochism is for the opposition and up-and-comer. It is never as simple as that.

Let us be clear, then, about the state of play. The insurrectionaries can’t ever win, of course. History is a series of failed, aborted, crushed, miserably put down or dead on arrival insurrections. I don’t even mean to suggest that there is a war of attrition between insurrectionaries and the state. Any mention of objectives or goals or utopian trajectories is unacceptable, and it is an escape into fantasy to suppose either that a new world is being built in the shell of the old or that these insurrectionaries and jouisseurs will one day attain revolutionary consciousness and save you. We have already seen revolutionary consciousness is no solution. Our revolutionaries, too, are masochists. Perhaps it is time to take up Sartre’s analysis of bad faith and finally expunge it of its ignorant and infantile associations, finally put it where it belongs, in the hands of the nobodies who recognise they are nobodies, creative nothings, uniques, who know that none of this, not even they, are real—and who have no need to put this truth in words, who have no need even to know it.

For what good, civilised one, has knowledge done for anybody?

“For the new earth (“In truth, the earth will one day become a place of healing”) is not to be found in the neurotic or perverse reterritorializations that arrest the process or assign it goals; it is no more behind than ahead, it coincides with the completion of the process of desiring-production, this process that is always and already complete as it proceeds, and as long as it proceeds.”

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), p. 433.

There was that morning in February, as I strolled the great cemetery overlooking the city, when I felt the trees were hands holding up the sky in silent supplication. I felt that sensation of eternity, and as I counted the children’s names on the gravestones, I thought that the great lungs of the world were breathing in some strange rhythm with the dead and the dead-to-be, that there was some great weight that wouldn’t breach the Earth’s kind skin for as long as the ramparts held. Lucretius says this world is already past its prime. Insurrection is the recognition that the same is true of us. There is an external insurrection against the established order, and an internal insurrection—Deleuze called it repetition—as its secret heart, the motor of novelty, some beautiful and brutal overturning of the normal and the mundane that arrests all that is putrid and worthless, expels it from the weary soul, and sets the new in motion, not for the sake of constructing some sacred and permanent order, but for the re-establishment of contact with reality and the setting-forth of that which might justify reality to us, only to us, for it needs no justification for or to itself. The law is that which seeks to keep reality suppressed, to stop the ramparts of the world from being breached. This is, and always has been, a war won with Pyrrhic victories.

So we return to the beginning, and we see it really never was a question of performativity, but rather a question of opposition between that great chaotic flux and the circuits that seek to contain it masochistically or crush it sadistically. We have seen that the revolution is not the answer, that in an important sense there is no answer, and that that is precisely the point of the mad, incoherent violence we have seen and will continue to see again and again. No doubt it won’t come from you. But where will it come from next? How far will it go? Will there ever be one last great push? From what unexpected sectors will the next great insurrection emerge? And what forces will come to co-opt or repress it? What will their tactics be? And will they succeed? Or will this great world finally burst usunder and wash us all away?

Those are certainly interesting questions, but none of them are questions a theorist can answer.


1. Gilles Deleuze and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Masochism (Zone Books, 1991), p. 41.

2. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, Bloomsbury Revelations (London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), p. 6.

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