On the Militancy of 2011 and the Time of Revolution

There has never yet been human life, but always just economic life. (Bloch, 2006: 18)

New York Police officers attack protesters with batons, pepper spray and horses in an attempt to prevent them from gathering in Times Square. Police officers’ rage is understandable, for in this photograph, we witness angry protesters who have turned the world upside down. What the image suggests is that people are no longer determined by capitalist excess, but determine the conditions that determine them. It shows the interaction between the virtual (a philosophical ideal, revolution) and the actual (angry protesters) that is at war with visible reality (neoliberal capitalism). The image, therefore, captures a moment in which the stability and the certainty of neoliberalism became yesterday’s bad memory. Times Square, the capital of consumerism and the capitalist spectacle, makes a powerful setting for this picture: “shiny walls of towing glass, the citadels of corporate entertainment, dazzle among the giant screens” (Jones, 2011).

But no one looks entertained. Rather the capitalist imperative to enjoy ceases to exist and is replaced by genuinely angry and determined people who do not protest just against austerity, corruption, or corporate greed, but against the system itself. They are putting neoliberal capitalism in the dock. As the protests have made clear, market fundamentalism and a universal fear of state power are insufficient answers to the question of how to sustain a global order. Everyone knows that Occupy Wall Street and its slogan “We are the 99 percent” against the profiteering 1% tells the truth, the truth of the system coming to an end. It politicises, visualises, and expresses the fact that “We are not all in this together. Let us awake to the destruction of the present!” It reflects, in other words, a radical shift, a radical critique that focuses on the internal dynamics of the system, for the phrase focuses attention on massive inequality and injustice that characterise neoliberal capitalism.

Occupy Wall Street and the alternative political possibilities it has revealed may yet prove to be a catalyst for radical structural change. That is not the point. Occupy Wall Street is a turning point in history, not only because it succeeded in putting neoliberal capitalism at the centre of debate, which so recently seemed the only game in town, but also because it has illustrated “how political engagement with reality can rekindle the imaginative possibilities” (Sparrow, 2012). Occupying a place day and night, surrounded by crowds shaking the ground with a joy of togetherness and friendship, is a change, already happening and shared.

Neoliberal capitalism has dominated the world over the last three decades. Margaret Thatcher claimed that “there was no alternative to capitalism”. After the fall of the Berlin Wall the market ruled universally, the communist alternative turned out to be impossible, and Francis Fukuyama declared history’s end in which liberal democracy, or neoliberal capitalism seemed incontrovertible. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the pioneers of neoliberal post-​politics, led the left to embrace ‘free-​finance’ friendly Third Way politics. As a result, ours has become a world in which people can imagine the end of the world but not that of capitalism (see Žižek, 2009, page 78).

In the above image, we see the end of that consensual neoliberal post-​politics, which is going out of joint. What we see collapse is neoliberal capitalism, which declares that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” is only possible through the existence of an unfettered market economy. In a naïve expectation of a ‘just justice’, what we get instead is neoliberal post-​politics, a network of cruel and militarised social regimes that has come to define politics in our own time. In short, it is neoliberal and militarised post-​politics which has clearly emerged as the name of the problem. What we see rise instead is nothing other than radical critique that is inseparable from the concept of revolution. If neoliberal post-​politics is the problem, revolution is the answer. After all, revolution is an idea that never disappears.

In this sense, 2011 was a turning point in history, a year of a revolutionary becoming. Together with the Occupy movement, the world witnessed five revolts, in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya. Specifically, what made the Arab revolts unexpected was not only the collapse of western-​backed corrupt and cruel dictatorships, but the fact that they occurred at the hands of the people who demanded freedom and justice. The Arab people have been consistently portrayed as ‘savage’, ‘barbarians’ who are not ready for democracy. However, they have shown us what democracy is. “What pathetic persistence of colonial arrogance! In the situation of political misery that we’ve been living for the last three decades, is not evident to surmise that it is us who have everything to learn from the popular uprisings of the moment?” (Badiou, 2011)

What we could and should learn from the Occupy movement and the Arab uprisings is that we aren’t powerless, depotentialised; we have a choice. The event is not far away. Central, then, to the Occupy movement and the Arab uprisings is the idea of event, which makes it possible to touch the virtual from within the actual. An event is what restructures the virtual; it is what calls the future into being. For Deleuze (1994), for instance, the politics of event is a belief in the possibility of radical social change. An event, an act is a virtual potentiality, as excess, up against the actual. If revolution is at once a creative historical process (the actual) and an idea (the virtual), it refers to an event that is separated from the historical situation. The event requires a disconnection from the given, and simultaneously a connection to what is to come. In other words, the event cannot be reduced to history but is by definition ‘untimely’. The paradoxical relationship between excess (the actual) and lack (the virtual) creates a dynamic disequilibrium, and it is this “perpetual disequilibrium” which “makes revolutions possible” (Deleuze, 1990, page 49). The virtual is always an excess, which can relate itself to the actual as a lack, as what is to come. The virtual is the indicator of the fact that every social relation can become different, can be rethought and reactualised in other ways. In this sense the virtual is always in relation to the event; history is a theatre, a virtual realm, where unknown potentialities and actors can produce radically new events (Deleuze 1994: 10).

The Occupy movement and the Arab uprisings have demonstrated that history is a theatre, a virtual potentiality where human actors can produce new events. In short, the event occurs between us, the people, who have been silent for a long time – “people, who are present in the world but absent from its meaning and decisions about its future” (Badiou, 2012: 56). Thus they have illustrated how the notion of people is an invitation to commitment to the event. One cannot but recognise the thread of radical critique, the link between its moment and its place. The Occupy movement and the Arab revolts signal the arrival of an era in which the politics of hope extinguishes the politics of fear. The people are no longer silent and fearful. It is the governments, their repressive technologies and the universal surveillance state that are afraid of the people now. Put simply, they mark the beginning of a new era in which radical critique extinguishes revisionist or decaffeinated critique. OWS and the Arab revolts recentred radical critique on struggle against neoliberal capitalism.

In Occupy Wall Street and the Arab revolts, masses seized the moment and were seized by the moment. What we have here is a resurgence of political will – a kind of revolutionary intoxication which is inextricably connected to strategy. What’s more, the space of the event is not reducible to the empirical space. One should never underestimate the political power of place because it can become a space of critique, dissensus and collective resistance to build new, potential worlds. Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square resistances have demonstrated that people can clearly use places to house political energy. Thus, while the free movement of capital exists as an invisible abstraction, occupying a place is exceedingly concrete, a visible presence at the spaces of hope. The politics of hope, it seems, finds “shelter nowhere but in the tents pitched on public squares” (Bauman, 2012, page14). Instead of the market, or competition, the protesters depend upon cooperation; instead of reckless individuality, they rely upon collective solidarity. In short, Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square are indications of how places are common grounds; they haunt the imaginations of people who can build a consciousness toward existence. The place is intimately connected to the event.

After all, an event is valuable in so far as it transcends the empirical space, and links us to the virtual, the untimely. The topological space of the event is the space of creative destruction. The space of the event is, in short, one in which the new eternally returns. It is at this point that Occupy Wall Street and the Arab revolts should be situated, as they epitomise the very antagonism between the empty, chronological time (of measurement) and the virtual (immeasurable) time, the ‘time for revolution.’ In their struggle, the mediation between the virtual and the actual is of crucial significance. Their resistance has an actual existence, while at the same time contains within themselves possibilities for change, which links it to the domain of the virtual. Their struggle, in other words, involves a double serialisation, which contains two kinds of events: virtualisation and actualisation.

In their upheaval and disruption, time was experienced intensively: in their tent cities some kind of elemental process took place where the living fabric of life was transformed into the experimental commune. Their struggle was exactly to transcend the empty, chronological time, transforming the places into a virtual centre, a space of creative destruction, into a space in which new potentialities emerged. There was incessant political debate. Both Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square created an immense impetus for the intentional acting of a revolutionary subjectivity (‘the struggling, oppressed classes’). Everything was shared, from space, thoughts to beds and food. Developing a culture of dissent and confrontation, the protesters talked about ideas/​thoughts, avidly discussing them, mobilising a life around an idea. As a result, Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square became a microcosm of debate, a profusion of ideas, a site of encounters, which enabled the occupiers to organize a life around an idea in the service of a moment of awakening. In a sense, this historical awakening was an escapist logic, but it was not an escapism which seeks to hide from the world. Rather it was an escapism from the hell, the very hell of neoliberal capitalism, which follows through into escape from the present.

Concomitantly, the protesters not only struggled against neoliberal capitalism, but also against the ‘dirty tricks’ used by the governments. Mobilising the repressive state apparatus of the police and armed forces, the governments did everything to savage the occupiers, smear their opponents, and manipulate, channel, and repress the participants’ tremendous energy, thus illustrating what Alain Badiou (2012: 18 – 9) calls “zero tolerance” for the occupiers and other participants and “infinite tolerance for the crimes of bankers and government embezzlers which affect the lives of millions.” Despite all these difficulties, the demonstrating masses’ appeal must be understood at the level of strategy and revolutionary intoxication, which are keys to a transformed relationship with the world, a revolutionary becoming.

In this respect the time of the revolts was another time, the moment at which the unthinkable became reality. Thinking otherwise in order to act beyond the boundaries of the given, neoliberal capitalism, was a characteristic of the Occupy movement and the Arab revolts from the beginning. They offered the masses a moment of decision: revolutionary event or the violence of the capital. Confronted with the potentiality of the event, they were able to affirm this potentiality. What this means is that, in Occupy Wall Street and the Arab revolts strategic timing of the event went hand in hand with a fearless admission of ‘engaged’ revolutionary subjectivity, that is, a particular ethical ‘fidelity’ to the event. For without such fidelity, the actual cannot open up itself to the virtual.

The actualisation process was in two forms. First, since the virtual (idea) and the actual (the protesters) are inextricably bound to the event, the demonstrating masses actualised the event by seizing the moment, unknown potentialities. Reading the signs in the given situation, they grasped the moment of opportunity by a strategic decision. Theirs was, in short, an untimely intervention in which the past and the future merged together; a contracted moment where the virtual and the actual came together, rectifying capitalism’s injustices and inequalities and imagining a different future. This is of course the gateway to the present moment, revealing a non-​linear time in which unknown possibilities are not pregiven but created with revolutionary action.

Second, by means of an interpretation (reading the symptoms, signs available in the existing situations), the occupiers were, too, transformed in the process of interpretation. As a result of acting, they became worthy of the event through a process of counteractualisation. Put differently, the physical actualisation of the event (Zuccotti Park, Tahrir Square) was accompanied by the demonstrating masses through a process of counter-​actualisation. In actualisation they seized the moment, the virtual as domain of political possibilities, whereas in counteractualisation the moment, the event seized them. Consequently, they were able to determine the historical conditions that determined them for a long time. With the two sides of the event – actualisation and counteractualisation — there emerged freedom and ‘free protesters’ who grasped the political event as a revolutionary becoming. Thus their resistance was the point of pure ‘becoming’ where creative revolutionary act coincided immediately with a process of total subjectivisation, the fidelity to the event.

What we’ve learned from the Occupy movement and the Arab revolts is that neoliberal capitalism is not the only alternative, conceivable economic system – in short the realisation that there is an alternative. The ultimate importance of the militancy of 2011 may be that it was a start to the process of rebuilding alternative social and political imaginaries. Before 2011, one couldn’t even imagine an alternative to neoliberal capitalism. But the revolts showed that we can now at least imagine new political possibilities. In short, the revolts finally managed to break the 30-​year stranglehold of neoliberalism that has been placed on our thoughts and imagination, a counterrevolutionary thought which has been writing the history of human relations as market relations for over 30 years.

There remains one issue to be clarified however. The militancy of 2011, it seems, didn’t itself have the force necessary to topple the existing social order. Today even great successes can be contained and neutralised by neoliberal capitalism. Thus, it is not enough to reject neoliberal capitalism; one should also begin to think seriously about what kind of system we desire instead of capitalism. Since neoliberal capitalism has appeared as the name of the problem, it seems the time had come to think about new political possibilities: the very nature of neoliberal capitalism, money, debt and inequality; to ask what ‘capitalism’ is actually for. What social system can replace capitalism, what idea can replace neoliberal post-​politics? These are the questions that we all need to ask; questions that should prompt us to think about new political possibilities and search for new emergent forms of organisations such as communism.

The crisis of neoliberalism caused us to think politics might be possible. That realisation should deepen and enrich us. Thus we should begin to imagine and experiment with what is possible, since the virtual bears no relationship with the existing order. After all, freedom is valuable in so far it can mean experimenting with the link between what exists and what happens. If the protests are to become more than ‘hapless carnivals’, if they are to become a catalyst to change the world, eventually we will undoubtedly have to confront a new form of organisation. Given that we have only just emerged from the neoliberal counterrevolution, it is safe to say that it will take time. So the key will be to sustain the story of Occupy and the Arab revolts through a new political organisation that is as intoxicated as it is open to new emergent possibilities. So we need to do so patiently, respectfully and always in relation to strategy and hard work, the very features that made revolution what it is.

Of course nothing in the long run is only going to be changed by just occupying space. And we still do not know where OWS and the Arab revolts will lead, for we are dealing here not with a determinate historical event which cannot be explained by economic and political causality, but an event as a process that is still going on. But they will only have an effect on the established order if they match with a new subjectivity that combines both revolutionary intoxication and strategic predicament. Only on this basis can it be possible to translate the new subjectivity into action that offers ‘resistance’. For OWS and the Arab revolts to succeed in the long term, the creative dimension of radical critique needs to be put to work, rather than translated into power’s language. Only in this way can revolutionary change be effected without falling back upon either passivity or meaningless violence.

In this respect both sides of revolution — strategy and intoxication, seeing and desire, knowledge and faith — are crucial. Strategy without intoxication (decaffeinated critique) is useless as intoxication without strategy, that is to say, passage à l’acte which creates nothing new. Revolving around the permanent crisis of its strategic aporia, radical critique establishes a link between the actual (a strategic calculus) and the virtual (revolutionary intoxication), a link which makes it possible for the new subjectivity to positively cause a rupture, to destroy its creaturely attachment to neoliberal and militarised post-​politics. In short, both sides of radical critique are vital. What matters is to keep them in relation. And finally, the aporia of critique must be overcome by praxis, which is not reduced to empty, chronological time. The time of revolution has no ‘proper time’. The time of revolution is never chronological time.

The Occupy movement may have been evicted, the spirit of the Arab revolts may have been revised, mystified. But these burgeoning movements have demonstrated that “no one can evict an idea whose time has come.” That idea, I suggest, is communism.

Ali Riza Taşkale is a doc­toral candidate in Human Geo­graphy at the Uni­ver­sity of Shef­field. Email: a.​taskale@​sheffield.​ac.​uk


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