No We Can’t
Ian Alan Paul, 2018
While “Yes We Can” fueled a particular historical sequence, unquestionably it is “No We Can’t” that is more explosive today.
As landscapes turn to tinder and melting ice sends sea levels rising, as police departments arm themselves to the teeth and states organize to wage war upon the same people they claim to represent and govern, as ethno-nationalists and politicians share cocktails and trade policy notes, and as more and more of life is made to be illegal, indebted, and ultimately disposable, calls to get involved in the political system, to organize and agitate for this or that reform, or to simply preserve a modicum of hope for a less brutal tomorrow increasingly come to be answered with the austere clarity of “No We Can’t.”
The collective turn towards “No We Can’t” is not apolitical, but rather is an orientation that is directed beyond politics as they are normatively circumscribed. Within the feverish enthusiasm of “Yes We Can,” political forms of belonging and practices of living were entirely recuperated into positive identifications with parties, politicians, and platforms. In contrast, the negative collectivities of “No We Can’t” aggregate together not because they identify with anything in common, but only as a consequence of their shared opposition to the entirety of the present.
The attraction of “No We Can’t” is felt whenever things begin to boil over, wherever constraints strangle and asphyxiate too tightly, and in whoever simply can’t stomach any more. “No We Can’t” is cultivated in the joyous wildness of a riot, the irresistible contagiousness of a wildcat strike, the liberating relief of desertion, the militant romance of a blockade, and the clandestine pleasure of sabotage.
“No We Can’t” is not the opposite of “Yes We Can,” nor can the former be reduced to the absence of the latter. Rather, “No We Can’t” is the sum of “Yes We Can” and its cancellation. It is all of the potential, hope, and idealism of “Yes We Can” and its failure, negation, and extinguished actualization. “No We Can’t” will always contain more than “Yes We Can” simply because “No We Can’t” is born into a world where “Yes We Can” has already been defeated and exhausted of possibility.
“No We Can’t” emerges in relation to a neoliberal democratic order that has fully entered into the process of its own formal disintegration, crumbling within the turbulence of capital’s global intensification while fully embracing and becoming one with its own descent. Whatever meager welfare that had been sheltered is now defunded, slashed, and pilfered at every opportunity, corruption festers at all levels of the state and transnational corporate economy, entire territories are turned into deserts or become inundated with ever more powerful storms, autonomous military drones fill the skies and the whole of the Earth’s surface is made into a potential target for bombing, and the machine-sharpened blades of freshly laid razor wire at migrant concentration camps in the desert slice through the skin of whatever modest allocation had been reserved for human dignity. Ours is a world that has grown fascinated with and drawn towards its own death, and as a result to refuse death today is also to refuse the world.
“No We Can’t” looks towards the persistently renewed promises of salvation and the increasingly severe threats of authority and calls both of their bluffs. It declares that whatever follows from mass collective refusal could be no worse than the catastrophe that is already the everyday, and stakes out a position not based on the claim that “Another World is Possible” but on the increasingly apparent fact that our world cannot be allowed to remain possible for any longer. “No We Can’t” is not afraid of ruins in a world that already so enthusiastically proliferates them.
“No We Can’t” adopts ungovernability as the point of departure for all political life. Revolt is taken up as the foundation for a fundamentally negative form of praxis that aims to unmake the world as it has been made, to disorder the entire order of the world, to unravel the present that presently is engaged in a calculated and measured process of existential, social, and planetary dispossession.
“No We Can’t” is destituent power put into practice, aiming not to take, but to abolish power. It conspires to make all of the world inefficient and unproductive, simply because what is efficient and productive in a world bent towards destroying itself only more efficiently and productively facilitates that destruction. “No We Can’t” makes things useless and inoperative so other uses and operations can possibly be invented and put into practice. An encamped roundabout in Cairo creates space for an outdoor cinema, just as a student walkout in Mexico City creates time for a dance party.
“No We Can’t” inherits all of what remains unresolved and unfinished from past revolts, and the force of “No We Can’t” in the present depends upon its ability to adequately answer the infinite and indeterminate call and cry of that involuntary and unruly inheritance. The collective refusal of work, of the regimentation of time, of the built organization of space, of sovereignty and the state, of religion, of gender constraints, of capital and the economy, of patriarchy, of identity, of extractivism and ecological devastation, of empire, and of coloniality have all contributed to the ever growing repertoires and oeuvres of “No We Can’t.”
“No We Can’t” is necessarily a collective project because of one obvious fact: individual refusal, escape, subversion, disobedience, and withdrawal have all already been accounted for and defused in advance. Power, after all, is flexible, attentive, and responsive. It bends before it breaks. Power listens and lets you vent. It watches and lets you act out. Only after you’ve exhausted yourself does power again fully exert itself, only now all the more intricately and intimately after having come to know you better. “No We Can’t” is necessarily a collective project because power must be destroyed and destituted all at once or not at all. Its grip must be entirely broken or it will continue to discover new ways to hold on.
“No We Can’t” has no appetite, hunger, or taste for the ideals, dreams, and desires of this world. There is no future and no utopia waiting for “No We Can’t,” and as long as there is no justice to be found there will be no peace either. “No We Can’t” offers no escape. It makes no demands and no requests, and instead just takes whatever is needed. It declares that there is no consent of the governed, that no means no, and that no is final.
“No We Can’t” can be translated to “No Pasarán,” “Ni Dieu, Ni Maître,” “لا للتحرش,” “Diguem No,” or simply “No!” which has the advantage of being understood in many different dialects and languages.
“No We Can’t,” of course, is also a form of survival. “No We Can’t” creates pause, breaks routine, and lets you catch your breath. It is a means of interrupting whatever interrupts our ability to respond to and care for one another, a means of nurturing sensibilities and sensitivities that exceed neoliberal common sense, and a means of starving the systems and structures that so often threaten to devour our relationships and ourselves whole. “No We Can’t” is an uncompromising defense of life that is otherwise persistently compromised by the indifferent rationalities and merciless cruelties that now give order to and organize our world.
“No We Can’t” is boredom and disinterest in the attention economy, congestion and friction in the logistics of global capital, and default and insolvency in neoliberal finance. It is a blocked freeway in Oakland, a burning limousine in Washington D.C., BDS in Jerusalem, the ZAD in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, Stonewall in New York, a camp at Standing Rock, a night march in Ferguson, a feminist strike in Barcelona, and an occupied airport terminal in Seattle. It is monkey wrenched pipelines, hacked databases, cut border fences, obstructed ports, antifa, and the black bloc. The coalition of “No We Can’t” is founded on an intimacy that arises not from any common affirmation or affiliation, but from the shared experience of attempting to abolish what subjugates you in common.
The dream of the general strike is “No We Can’t” dreamt in its most total form.
As social media billionaires spend their days trying to connect the world to their platforms, “No We Can’t” severs the fiber optic line. As I.C.E. agents grab parents picking their children up from school, “No We Can’t” surrounds their trucks. As fascists in polo shirts preach the virtues of the white race for television cameras, “No We Can’t” throws a punch. “No We Can’t” is a burning tire on the highway, a torn down monument in a park, and a tear gas canister being thrown back over lines of riot police.
To the world it refuses, “No We Can’t” clamors: No we can’t be reasoned with. No we can’t be sensible. No we can’t be patient. No we can’t stay out of it. No we can’t move along. No we can’t be civil. No we can’t be controlled. No we can’t be negotiated with. No we can’t be pacified. No we can’t be bought. No we can’t calm down. No we can’t get out of the way. No we can’t return to business as usual. No we can’t let this go on any longer.
No we can’t.
“No We Can’t” is excerpted from the preface of the forthcoming
“No: Destituent Power and the Practice of Refusal”