The Micropolitical Heart of Revolution, Essay Example

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Essay

Woody Holton’s historiographical approach in Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution is explicit: the author seeks to develop his narrative about American independence in a space that is not over-determined by conceptual frameworks, such as ideology and geopolitics, which are traditionally linked to political change. Holton is committed to developing the individual narratives of those outside of the traditional boundaries and delimitations of political power, in order to understand how their contributions were decisive to the realization of a particular political movement. I feel that Holton’s greater thesis can thus be understood as a “radical” flattening of where political events can take place. These events are not bound to the political mechanisms that are commonly associated with the political process, such as government, but rather political change equally lies in sites that seem to be merely the material object of political process. In this regard, Holton’s historiography could itself be considered democratic, mirroring the democratic essence of the Revolution: Holton demonstrates the political potential inherent to the demos. At the same time, such a reading appears entirely appropriate to the question of American Revolution, insofar as the latter can be understood in terms of direct challenges to consolidated forms of political hegemony.

Holton identifies the crucial factor that mobilizes the masses against the hegemony as economic. Accordingly, the Constitutional Framers themselves are portrayed as directly affected by a dissatisfaction from the masses that is engendered by economic hardship. For example, “Madison recognized that thousands of Americans shared his frustrations”[1] in regards to “economic analyses on their own experience.”[2] The catalyst for the movement away from Great Britain is a certain form of existential crisis brought about by economic difficulties. Holton’s analysis of Madison suggests that such economic hardships were not the exception, but the norm: accordingly, this basic crisis of individuals at the same time registers itself on the greater social level, whereby the reality of economic hardship is reflected in all aspects of society according to the omnipresence of economy in relation to individual lives.

There is also a sense in which Holton’s work, when viewed from the perspective of individual hardship as the instigator of political change, can be viewed as an exercise in micropolitics. In a shift away from the emphasis on dominant actors in the political space, micropolitics focus on “what can be seen as a quiet challenge to forms of oppression.”[3] Micropolitics entails, “given their small scale, subtle and often hidden challenges – often at the level of identities and meanings.”[4] In short, I think that micropolitics can represent a strategic and tactical intervention in a political context, despite its quantitative paucity: for example, the phenomenon of social media in the recent Arab Spring as an example of such micro-politics resistance. At the same time, micropolitics is also historiographically relevant to the extent that it shifts attention away from the common objects of history, such as ideological and geopolitical concerns, to overlooked parts of the narrative that, despite their disproportion in relation to issues of social hegemony, nevertheless can possess effects within the latter. Micropolitics in its very essence are a broadening of the political space, in which every act becomes political and bears an effect on the “macropolitical” level. I am reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s concise formulation from A Thousand Plateaus: “In short, everything is political, but every politics is simultaneously a macropolitics and a micropolitics.”[5] The macropolitical is the dimension of the exercising of state power, in its various forms: economic policy, ideological narratives, and military mobilizations. The micropolitical level registers the effects of the macrolevel, but it is not a unilateral relationship: the micro-political can also act, however, disproportionately, against the macropolitical, thus changing the latter, which I think reflects Holton’s basic model, although perhaps with the slight twist that Holton attempts to minimize this disproportion and thus, to a certain degree, the rigidity of the macro and micro split itself. For example, Holton observes that “the persistent threat of Indian attack was one more reason the United States needed a powerful national military establishment.”[6] Clear expressions of hegemony, such as the establishment of national military, can therefore also be the result of somewhat disparate and isolated threats to the system, i.e., Indian attacks – the micropolitical realizes itself in the macropolitical, to the extent that the boundary between the two essentially becomes illusory. What Holton intimates with his approach, I feel, is precisely the openness of the political space, in which every act, however minimal at first glance, may potentially bear an affect. When these acts coalesce and increase their frequency, the macro-level is forced into a direct antagonism with the micro-level, and through this antagonism itself political hegemony is also de-centered and becomes, as it were, “up for grabs.”

The question that I think remains open in Holton’s work is the extent to which he nevertheless overstates the potential effectivity of the micro-political level (of course, with the caveat that I acknowledge: i.e., that the micro-political is an accurate description of what is at stake in his historiography). Certainly, it can be argued that Holton is merely trying to present a side of the revolutionary narrative that is often overlooked in terms of the more easily recognizable sites of political decision making. At the same time, such individual and isolated political actions according to the aforementioned disproportion between the micro and macro levels may ultimately rely on a corresponding revolutionary movement within the macro level so as to fully engender a conflict, i.e., a revolution. Namely, the micropolitical, although crucial to the Revolution, can never fully initiate the radical changes that were the formation of the Constitution and U.S. independence. For example, as Rauning states, based upon the work of Ardent: “The constitutional process in the USA was one that was borne by constituted assemblies and dominated by the principle of representation.”[7] This is the question that I would raise in response to Holton’s historiography: to what extent is the significance of the individual narrative he attempts to develop compromised by the notion that, for example, representation played a crucial role in the origins of the Constitution, a phenomenon that appears to contradict the very locating of political change in the individual, insofar as representation essentially defers the potential of individual political decision-making to another more traditional macropolitical entity? If this interpretation holds, the narrative related to individuals that Horton develops could be viewed as ultimately betraying itself, and it is only through this self-betrayal that revolutionary ambitions were realized. That is to say, micropolitics must essentially become macropolitics at some point in the Revolution, a transformation that undermines the veracity of the reduction of this narrative to isolated individuals.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus. New York, Continuum: 1987.

Holton, Woody. Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.

Rauning, Gerald. »Instituent Practices, No. 2: Institutional Critique, Constituent Power, and the Persistence of Instituting« in Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing

Institutional Critique, Gerald Rauning and Gene Ray (eds.), London: MayFly, 2009.187. 173-187.

Thomas, Robyn, Mills, Albert J., and Helms Mills, Jean. »Introduction: Resisting Gendering

Resistance« in Identity Politics at Work: Resisting Gender, Gendering Resistance, Robyn Thomas, Albert J. Mills and Jean Helms Mills (eds.), New York: Routledge, 2004. pp. 1-21.

[1] Woody Holton. Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 243.

[2] Ibid., 243.

[3] Robyn Thomas, Albert J. Mills, Albert J., and Jean Helms-Mills. »Introduction: Resisting Gendering Resistance« in Identity Politics at Work: Resisting Gender, Gendering Resistance, Robyn Thomas, Albert J. Mills and Jean Helms Mills (eds.), (New York: Routledge, 2004), 7.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. (New York, Continuum: 1987), 235.

[6] Woody Holton. Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 247.

[7] Gerald Rauning. »Instituent Practices, No. 2: Institutional Critique, Constituent Power, and the Persistence of Instituting« in Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique, Gerald Rauning and Gene Ray (eds.), (London: MayFly, 2009), 177.

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