Costas Douzinas writes: Failure, defeat, persecution and the attendant paranoia are marks of the Left. The left has learned to be under attack, to fail, to lose and wallow in the defeat. An enduring masochism lurks in the best Leftist books: many are stories of failure and variable rationalisation. It is true that the Left has lost a lot: a united analysis and movement, the working class as political subject, the inexorable forward movement of history, planned economy as an alternative to capitalism.
It is also true that the falling masonry of the Berlin wall hit western socialists more than the old Stalinists. Using Freud’s terms, the necessary and liberating mourning for the love object of revolution has turned into permanent melancholy. In mourning, the libido finally withdraws from the lost object and is displaced on to another. In melancholy, it “withdraws into the ego”. This withdrawal serves to “establish an identification of the ego with the abandoned object”.
Walter Benjamin has called this “Left melancholy”: the attitude of the militant who is attached more to a particular political analysis or ideal – and to the failure of that ideal – than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present. For his part, Benjamin calls upon the left to grasp the “time of the now”, while for the melancholic, history is an “empty time” of repetition. Part of the Left is narcissistically fixed to its lost object with no obvious desire to abandon it. Left melancholy leads inexorably to the fetishism of small differences: politically, it appears in the interminable conflicts, splits and vituperation among erstwhile comrades. Attacks on the closest, the threatening double, are more vicious than those on the enemy. Theoretically, according to Benjamin, Left melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. In our contemporary setting, we have a return to a particular type of grand theory, which combines an obsession with the explanation of life, the universe and everything with the anxiety of influence. The shadows and ghosts of the previous generation of greats weigh down on the latest missionaries of the encyclopaedia.
The most important reason why radical theory has been unable to fully comprehend recent resistances is perhaps the “anxiety of the grand narrative”. A previous generation of radical intellectuals – such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Edward Thompson and Louis Althusser – had close links with the movements of their time. Contemporary radical philosophers are found more often in lecture rooms than street corners.
The wider “academisation” of radical theory and its close proximity with “interdisciplinary” and cultural studies departments has changed its character. These academic fields have been developed as a result of university funding priorities. They happily welcome the appeal of radical philosophers contributing to their celebrity value. But this weakening of the link between practice and theory has an adverse effect on theory construction. The desire for a “radical theory of everything” caused by the “anxiety of influence” created by the previous generation of philosophical greats does not help overcome the limitations of disembodied abstraction.
It is no surprise that many European Leftists are happy to celebrate the late Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales or Rafael Correa and to carry out radical politics by proxy, while ready to dismiss what happens in our part of the world as irrelevant or misguided. It may feel better to lose gloriously than to win, even with a few compromises.
Repeated defeats do not help the millions whose lives have been devastated by neoliberal capitalism and post-democratic governance. What the Left needs is not a new model party or an all-encompassing brilliant theory. It needs to learn from the popular resistances that broke out without leaders, parties or common ideology and to build on the energy, imagination and novel institutions created. The Left needs a few successes after a long interval of failures.
Greece is perhaps the best chance for the European Left. The persistent and militant resistances sank two austerity governments and currently Syriza, the radical left coalition, is likely to be the first elected radical government in Europe. The historical chance has been created not by party or theory but by ordinary people who are well ahead of both and adopted this small protest party as the vehicle that would complement in parliament the fights in the streets. The political and intellectual responsibility of radical intellectuals everywhere is to stand in solidarity with the Greek Left. [Continue reading…]
Amjad Atallah writes:
If you live in Washington, DC, the question of what does the Egyptian Revolution mean for Palestine might seem like a strange question. The question du jour here is what does the Egyptian Revolution mean for Israel? The subtext to that second question is what does the Egyptian Revolution mean for Israel’s continued occupation and its denial of equality to non-Jewish citizens and residents. Of course, both questions show an Israel/Palestine-centric view of the world.
Yes, the denial of Palestinian freedom has been an iconic issue of concern not only for Arabs and the larger Muslim world, but also for the Global South and persons of conscience around the world. And once upon a time, the Palestinian struggle for their rights did symbolise the heroism of a people demanding justice for themselves.
But today that mantle lies with the Egyptian and Tunisian peoples. Today, they are the teachers and the rest of us are the pupils. Today, the Arab people of Egypt and Tunisia, and those demonstrating for the same goals throughout the Arab world are providing all of us, including Americans, with hard fought lessons that decades of useless peace-processing and support for authoritarian leaders have let us forget. Here are at least four lessons that have been thrown in our face:
First, the state and the government exist as a consequence of the will of the people, and not vice-versa. It was clear in Hosni Mubarak’s speech yesterday that he has conflated the state of Egypt with himself. His well being is that of Egypt. Attacks on his rule, in his mind, are attacks on Egypt. But Mubarak is not alone in this delusion.
Saddam Hussein saw Iraq in the same way. Listening to the Palestinian rulers in Gaza and Ramallah who administer some of the Palestinian cities under Israeli occupation, you would think that Palestine has become those administrations.
Millions of people marching throughout Egypt today and for the last two weeks have shown us what Egypt actually is – it is the self-determination exercised and demanded by those millions of individuals. Egypt is not an abstract concept tied in to a corrupt rule, it exists because the people today have resurrected themselves and in so doing have resurrected their state.
Palestinians in the first Intifada had tried something very similar but the exercise was ultimately hijacked and ended up in an agreement that actually restricted even further Palestinian space (anyone who lived in the West Bank or Gaza before the Oslo Agreement can tell you it was easier to travel throughout all of historic Palestine before “peace” than after).
Johann Hari writes:
So now we know. When our politicians complained over the past few decades, in a low, sad tone, that our young people were “too apathetic” and “disengaged”, it was a lie. A great flaring re-engagement of the young has take place this year. With overwhelmingly peaceful tactics, they are demanding policies that are supported by the majority of the British people – and our rulers are trying to truncheon, kettle and intimidate them back into apathy.
Here’s one example of the intimidation of peaceful protest by the young that is happening all over Britain. Nicky Wishart is a 12-year-old self-described “maths geek” who lives in the heart of David Cameron’s constituency. He was gutted when he found out his youth club was being shut down as part of the cuts: there’s nowhere else to hang out in his village. He was particularly outraged when he discovered online that Cameron had said, before the election, that he was “committed” to keeping youth clubs open. So he did the right thing. He organized a totally peaceful protest on Facebook outside Cameron’s constituency surgery. A few days later, the police arrived at his school. They hauled him out of his lessons, told him the anti-terrorism squad was monitoring him and threatened him with arrest.
The message to Nicky Wishart and his generation is very clear: don’t get any fancy ideas about being an engaged citizen. Go back to your X-Box and X-Factor, and leave politics to the millionaires in charge.
This slow constriction of the right to protest has been happening for decades now. Under New Labour, protesters outside parliament started to have to ask permission and suddenly found themselves prosecuted for “anti-social behaviour.” In 2009, a man who had committed no violence or threats at all died after being attacked by a police officer on the streets of London at a protest – and nobody has ever been punished. Now the Metropolitan Police’s instinctive response to any group of protesters is to surround them and ‘kettle’ – that is, arbitrarily imprison – them for up to ten hours in the freezing cold, with no food, water, or toilets. It doesn’t matter how peaceful you were. You are trapped.
In the past few weeks police officers have been caught responding to a disabled young man with cerebral palsy – who was protesting because his 16 year old brother is now too scared of debt to go to university – by hauling him out of his wheelchair and throwing him to the ground. They even tried to block a severely injured protester in need of brain surgery from being treated at the nearest hospital, on the grounds that police officers were being treated there too and it was ‘upsetting’ to have injured protesters in the same place. Now Sir Paul Stephenson, head of the Met, says a total ban on protests by students is “one of the tactics we will look at.”
These protesters are not defying the will of the British people; they are expressing it.
Chris Hedges writes:
I stood with hundreds of thousands of rebellious Czechoslovakians in 1989 on a cold winter night in Prague’s Wenceslas Square as the singer Marta Kubišová approached the balcony of the Melantrich building. Kubišová had been banished from the airwaves in 1968 after the Soviet invasion for her anthem of defiance, “Prayer for Marta.” Her entire catalog, including more than 200 singles, had been confiscated and destroyed by the state. She had disappeared from public view. Her voice that night suddenly flooded the square. Pressing around me were throngs of students, most of whom had not been born when she vanished. They began to sing the words of the anthem. There were tears running down their faces. It was then that I understood the power of rebellion. It was then that I knew that no act of rebellion, however futile it appears in the moment, is wasted. It was then that I knew that the Communist regime was finished.
“The people will once again decide their own fate,” the crowd sang in unison with Kubišová.
I had reported on the fall of East Germany before I arrived in Prague. I would leave Czechoslovakia to cover the bloody overthrow of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe was a lesson about the long, hard road of peaceful defiance that makes profound social change possible. The rebellion in Prague, as in East Germany, was not led by the mandarins in the political class but by marginalized artists, writers, clerics, activists and intellectuals such as Vaclav Havel, whom we met with most nights during the upheavals in Prague in the Magic Lantern Theater. These activists, no matter how bleak things appeared, had kept alive the possibility of justice and freedom. Their stances and protests, which took place over 40 years of Communist rule, turned them into figures of ridicule, or saw the state seek to erase them from national consciousness. They were dismissed by the pundits who controlled the airwaves as cranks, agents of foreign powers, fascists or misguided and irrelevant dreamers.
I spent a day during the Velvet Revolution with several elderly professors who had been expelled from the Romance language department at Charles University for denouncing the Soviet invasion. Their careers, like the careers of thousands of professors, teachers, artists, social workers, government employees and journalists in our own universities during the Communist witch hunts, were destroyed. After the Soviet invasion, the professors had been shipped to a remote part of Bohemia where they were forced to work on a road construction crew. They shoveled tar and graded roadbeds. And as they worked they dedicated each day to one of the languages in which they all were fluent—Latin, Greek, Italian, French, Spanish or German. They argued and fought over their interpretations of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Goethe, Proust and Cervantes. They remained intellectually and morally alive. Kubišova, who had been the most popular recording star in the country, was by then reduced to working for a factory that assembled toys. The playwright Havel was in and out of jail.
The long, long road of sacrifice, tears and suffering that led to the collapse of these regimes stretched back decades. Those who made change possible were those who had discarded all notions of the practical. They did not try to reform the Communist Party. They did not attempt to work within the system. They did not even know what, if anything, their protests would accomplish. But through it all they held fast to moral imperatives. They did so because these values were right and just. They expected no reward for their virtue; indeed they got none. They were marginalized and persecuted. And yet these poets, playwrights, actors, singers and writers finally triumphed over state and military power. They drew the good to the good. They triumphed because, however cowed and broken the masses around them appeared, their message of defiance did not go unheard. It did not go unseen. The steady drumbeat of rebellion constantly exposed the dead hand of authority and the rot and corruption of the state.
Chris Hedges writes:
On Dec. 16 I will join Daniel Ellsberg, Medea Benjamin, Ray McGovern and several military veteran activists outside the White House to protest the futile and endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of us will, after our rally in Lafayette Park, attempt to chain ourselves to the fence outside the White House. It is a pretty good bet we will all spend a night in jail. Hope, from now on, will look like this.
Hope is not trusting in the ultimate goodness of Barack Obama, who, like Herod of old, sold out his people. It is not having a positive attitude or pretending that happy thoughts and false optimism will make the world better. Hope is not about chanting packaged campaign slogans or trusting in the better nature of the Democratic Party. Hope does not mean that our protests will suddenly awaken the dead consciences, the atrophied souls, of the plutocrats running Halliburton, Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil or the government.
Hope does not mean we will halt the firing in Afghanistan of the next Hellfire missile, whose explosive blast sucks the oxygen out of the air and leaves the dead, including children, scattered like limp rag dolls on the ground. Hope does not mean we will reform Wall Street swindlers and speculators, or halt the pillaging of our economy as we print $600 billion in new money with the desperation of all collapsing states. Hope does not mean that the nation’s ministers and rabbis, who know the words of the great Hebrew prophets, will leave their houses of worship to practice the religious beliefs they preach. Most clerics like fine, abstract words about justice and full collection plates, but know little of real hope.
Hope knows that unless we physically defy government control we are complicit in the violence of the state. All who resist keep hope alive. All who succumb to fear, despair and apathy become enemies of hope.
Monks confined in a room with their own excrement for days, people beaten just for being bystanders at a demonstration, a young woman too traumatised to speak, and screams in the night as Rangoon’s residents hear their neighbours being taken away.
Harrowing accounts smuggled out of Burma reveal how a systematic campaign of physical punishment and psychological terror is being waged by the Burmese security forces as they take revenge on those suspected of involvement in last month’s pro-democracy uprising.
The first-hand accounts describe a campaign hidden from view, but even more sinister and terrifying than the open crackdown in which the regime’s soldiers turned their bullets and batons on unarmed demonstrators in the streets of Rangoon, killing at least 13. At least then, the world was watching. [complete article]
Editor’s Comment — Paul Wolfowitz used to say that if only the Palestinians would dedicate themselves to a non-violent struggle they would have the world’s support (or words something to that effect). Mahahatma Gandhi without doubt was the embodiment of the power of ahimsa. It is thus tragic that the lesson from Myanmar is that non-violent resistance can easily be crushed and just as easily falls away from the media’s attention. For as long as the media rewards violence with the bulk of its attention, non-violence may have infinite moral weight yet little to no political effect.