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

References

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Badiou A, 2012 The Rebirth of History (London, Verso)
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Žižek S, 2009 First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London, Verso)

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