The danger of fetishizing revolution

Originally published at Waging Nonviolence.


What do contact with extraterrestrials, the return of Jesus Christ, apocalypse, and revolution all have in common? In a sense, they are all imagined redemptions — epic reset buttons for humanity. Onto these we can pin our heartbreaks and frustrations with the world as it is, with all its suffering, mire and messy details. Any of these redemptive apocalypses can serve as the X that solves the daunting problem of our sense of impotency. This messianic X — this unknown and imaginary seismic intervention — might help us to hold onto a kind of hope despite overwhelming evidence of a hopeless reality. Somehow, someday, something will occur that stops the madness, and we will be able to begin anew.

We need hope — in life and also in political mobilization. Hope is an essential ingredient in scaling up collective action beyond the limited pool of martyrs, saints and counter-cultural usual suspects. Organizing large-scale collective power requires something of an art of raising popular hopes and expectations. A long-term vision of a radically transformed world can be an important grounding for such hope. And isn’t such radical transformation precisely the idea of social and political revolution? Isn’t it a bit unfair to include revolution as an item on the same list as the Biblical end of days?

Perhaps it is a bit unfair. It depends on whether we mean revolution as horizon or revolution as apocalypse. Do we imagine a revolutionary restructuring of power relations in society as an all-or-nothing totalizing moment or as an aspirational horizon, something to always be moving towards? If the former, then what incentive do we have to study the details of the terrain where we are presently situated? Why would we bother to strategize about overcoming the particular obstacles that block our way today, if we believe that the accumulation of all obstacles will ultimately add up to a grand crisis that will somehow magically usher in a new era? Believing that things will “have to get worse before they get better,” we may become disinterested in — perhaps even sabotaging of — efforts to improve real-life conditions in the here and now. After all, why put a band-aid on a gaping wound? Why prolong the life of an oppressive system? With such logic we can excuse ourselves from the trouble of getting to know our political terrain. It is, after all, the very mess we hope to avoid.  Continue reading

Is government a contestable space?

Yesterday in Revolution! (wait, what are we talking about?), I essentially argued, among other things, that there may be harm in framing our social, economic, and political change efforts in the United States today in a term whose applicability may be historically contingent. The word revolution, I suggested, conjures the idea of overthrowing a government, and as such is descriptive of a particular model of transformation that only applies to the radical overhaul of particular kinds of oppressive governments, e.g. feudalism, monarchies, dictatorships, and colonial governments. The harm, I suggested, comes from the uncritical and unqualified dichotomization of revolution vs. reformism in some activist circles, where the former is exalted and the latter dissed.

If we reject revolution vs. reformism as a false dichotomy and embrace that reforms (i.e. winning real improvements in real people’s lives now) are important, then another question arises: Is government a contestable space?

If winning reforms is important, the practical consolidation will necessarily involve some kind of government action. And forcing some kind of government action will necessarily involve a contestation of the space within government (at least at the consolidation phase of the process).

Now, let’s entertain for a minute that we decide that government is not a legitimate contestable space for genuine challenger movements. Then what is our theory of change? How will we improve the lives of real people (including our own lives), despite the powerful systemic obstacles in our way? I see two alternatives: we could 1) return to the arguably callous aforementioned “revolutionary” framework, where, in order to not legitimize “the system” or put a band-aid on a gaping wound, we postpone all social advancements until after the glorious moment of revolution (reminiscent of religious faith in a “reward in the hereafter”); or we could 2) adopt a voluntaristic “prefigurative politics” where we serve food in parks for free, squat community centers, organize bike collectives, plant community gardens, open free clinics, hold daily 4-hour General Assemblies, etc. — modeling the kind of nurturing, cooperative, anti-authoritarian world that we hold in our hearts. Or — score! — we don’t even have to choose between those two options: we can do both at the same time. And, in fact, I think that these two approaches, engaged simultaneously, constitute the basic modus operandi of many activists and activist groups today, especially explicitly anti-authoritarian groups.

Continue reading

Revolution! (wait, what are we talking about?)

I like to fancy myself a revolutionary… blah blah what does that even mean? I’d like to suggest for a minute that maybe the words revolution and revolutionary have been mostly emptied of their contents; that their meanings are more than slightly ambiguous, even among their proponents (I’m talking specifically within the United States); that they serve largely as references to inspirational historical moments and as signifiers of belonging (i.e. “getting it”) within some radical groups, organizations and subcultures — much more than these words presently (again, in the US) suggest an instructive path or framework for social, economic and political change.

There. I said it. The danger of questioning a signifier of belonging is that it can call into question one’s own belonging in the group where the signifier is operating!

So, when we say revolution, I think we’re mostly vaguely refering to the overthrow of governments — and in specific historical circumstances. Social justice-directed revolutions have overthrown monarchies, feudal systems, and colonial governments. I don’t know of a single Left-direction revolution in this sense (i.e. the overthrow of a government) that has been accomplished in a representative democracy (even in really shitty representative democracies). The only forces I can think of that have overthrown elected governments in the past century or so have been rightwing reactionary forces, usually through the form of a military coup. There have been plenty of those! If you can think of an exception to this, I’m all ears.

The best defense I’ve heard of current usage of the word revolutionary (again, in our context — I’m not talking about Tunisia or Egypt) has gone something like this: “Revolution is about overthrowing the current order. Presently, we have an oppressive plutocratic / capitalist order. We are working to overthrow that regime.” Great, I’m down with that, and I’ll happily keep sporting this signifier with this intended meaning. Still, it really doesn’t do much for me anymore…

What am I getting at? Why does this matter?

It matters because, as an ambiguous signifier of belonging, the word revolutionary can privilege certain tactics and approaches over others. As a label, revolutionary is meant to distinguish a change agent within a broader field of change agents — to marginally differentiate oneself and one’s group within a broader alignment of groups working for change — perhaps even more than it is meant to distinguish us from all-out defenders of the status quo. As such, its posed opposite is less the status quo than it is a reform approach to change. In extreme form, this tendency lumps “reformists” together with the status quo and its defenders — into one big inpenetrable monolith that we’re unequivocally against. It sets up a false dichotomy of revolution vs. reform — a framework that has some merit, but that can be paralyzing without further clarification and nuance. Furthermore, as an ambiguous signifier of belonging (in certain radical subcultures), group members may be inclined to do things, to say things, even to wear things that seem “revolutionary”, and to distance themselves from anything that reeks of “reformism”. In extreme form this leads to the idea of revolution as apocalypse: what is needed is a cataclysmic, nevermind catastrophic, reset; any improvement in the situations of real people is dismissed, maybe even denounced, as prolonging the life of the “system”.

I’m not suggesting that everyone who uses the word revolution is guilty of any of the above. After all, advertisers love to brand the shit they’re selling as “revolutionary” too.