January 17, 2010

Spectres of revolution


"Graham's claims about those calling for revolution seem a little off," writes Paul John Ennis , of my recent conversation with Graham. "For one there is almost a constant cloud of cautiousness that hangs over leftism today and Badiou, for one, does not push for a classic revolution but something like carving out autonomous spaces - zones within capital but resistant to it." Reid was also very troubled by the post. A measure of clarification is called for.

It isn't that anyone is calling for a revolution - on the contrary, there are very few such calls - so much as that there is a continuing appeal to revolution, an alleged revolutionary identification. This not only amounts to a weak messianic gesture, it is also completely at variance with the institutionalized nature of cultural Marxism that Paul describes: "cultural Marxism finds a safe ground in the midst of academia where ones commitment is always partial and never costly". What this produces in continentalist leftism is a kind of camp solemnity, and I fully share Graham's exasperation with it. In Paul's own excellent book of interviews, Post-Continental Voices (forthcoming on Zer0), Ian Bogost describes very well a familiar disjunction:

    Continental philosophy has long prided itself on its purported coupling to the material world, mostly through a particular sense of political action. For better or worse, that typically falls in the wake of May ’68, a group of ideas that Peter Starr has given the apt name “logics of failed revolt.” Starr traces this dynamic in France until the 1976 abandonment of Leninism, but it is clear that an idealized attitude of leftist reform continues to pervade applications of continental philosophy. This is particularly ironic in the United States, where I am based, since the decades since ’68 have simultaneously hosted the massive growth of continental philosophy and the wholesale rejection of socialist politics in any form.

Moreover, I can grant everything that Reid - and Alex Andrews in the comments - say about the practical-empirical left (no-one involved in leftist organisations really expects a total and immediate eschatological transformation of society, nor have they for at least a half a century). But this is to ignore the traces that the the concept "revolution" carries with it, and the way that the left (of whatever stripe) remains haunted by those traces. I believe that "revolution" is - and has been for a long time - a malignant ghost for the left, and one of the regrettable effects of Badiou and Zizek has been to revive it. The fact that Badiou no longer thinks that either a Jacobin or a Leninist revolution is possible, that all we can hope for is some miserable "autonomy" from Capital, only compounds this impasse. The effect of continually invoking the violent theatre of Jacobin revolt can only make small zones of autonomy appear even more paltry, producing a sense of gloomy resignation very far from the "encouragement" that Badiou seeks to engender. But the alternative to this resignation is not Zizek's relentless litany of Robespierre-Lenin-Mao; Badiou is surely right that the time for that kind of politics is long gone.

Zizek should be taken at his word; a real repetition of Lenin would entail a break from Lenin - and, I would add, from the co-ordinates of that exhausted tradition. When Badiou says that we must invent the "communist hypothesis" again, from nothing, that is also correct, provided that the word "communist" - alongside "emancipatory", "progressive", "radical" - can itself be dispensed with: such words, dulled by their ceaseless circulation in the cultural left and by their appropriation in Capital's NuLanguage, taste stale in our mouths. Badiou is nowhere more inspiring than when he writes of how "exalting" the task of inventing a new politics in the current conditions can be. And Zizek is right when he says that the very apparent hopelessness of the current situation ought to licence an experimental attitude towards politics.

So let's be clear. I'm very far from saying that nothing can ever change. There has been some discussion of whether Capitalist Realism is a pessimistic book. For me, it isn't pessimistic, but it is negative. The pessimism is already embedded in everyday life - it is what Zizek would call the "spontaneous unreflective ideology" of our times. Identifying the embedded, unreflective pessimism is an act of negativity which, I hope, can make some contribution to denaturalizing that pessimism (which, by its very nature, does not identify itself as such, and is covered over by a compulsory positivity which forbids negativity). Far from nothing ever changing, something already has changed, massively - the bank crisis was an event without a subject, whose implications are yet to be played out. The terrain - the crashed present, littered with the ideological rubble of failed projects - is there to be fought over. And I believe that it can be seized by those who have been most deeply cooked in neo-liberalism and post-Fordism, not the French immobilisers, the nostaglic 68ers, the hay bale agragrians, or anyone else resigned to playing Canute to the rising tide of Capital. We can only win if we reclaim modernization.

(On which, there are some excellent strategic suggestions by David Harvey here. Great title too, with a wonderful hyperstitional puissance: "Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition".)

Posted by mark at January 17, 2010 04:21 PM | TrackBack