Politics is about movement. Conservative (in the generic sense of the term) politics are politics of the present. Their aim is to keep people in place. Radical politics are politics of the future. Their aim is to move people to where they could or should be.
But as Aristotle argued: all things move in response to desire. In politics, inertia is a function of lack of desire. Mechanical force can be applied to keep people in place, but it is of no use in moving people towards a future they do not desire (even if it is, or even if there are arguments which prove it to be, desirable).
Since the financial crisis erupted in 2008, new socialist programs articulating new sets of social values have become legion. The most recent to come to my attention is from Slovenia: “Our goal is a social and economic system based on direct democracy in politics and economy and on democratically planned production. We want a system of production and distribution that is in accordance with the needs of each individual and of society as a whole, and which takes into account the regenerative capacities of the natural environment. For us democratic socialism is not a utopian vision of a distant future, but the process of overcoming capitalism by democratic means. A process guided by century-long traditions of emancipatory struggles of workers, peasants, women and indigenous peoples.”(Manifesto of the Initiative for Democratic Socialism, Slovenia).
But where is the desire that would move people in the direction of “overcoming capitalism by democratic means?”
In the twentieth century Marxists used to speak of scientific theories of revolution. This science claimed to be able to determine objective class interests, specify the precise structural impediments capitalism put in the way of their realization, the political organizations required for the marshalling of sufficient force to overcome those structures, and the immediate steps needed to put society upon what was called ‘the road to socialism.’
The fragment quoted above dispenses with the rhetoric of “science,” but shares the underlying structure of argument: there are social facts, there are moral truths about human beings, the two can be in contradiction, socialism is the political means by which social facts are made adequate to moral truths. One should not laugh at the epithet “scientific,” if we understand it to mean “objective,” i.e., grounded in demonstrable truths rather than naïve wishful thinking. It is clear that there are such things as objective interests and moral truths are anchored in these objective interests. All human beings have an objective interest in there being oxygen in the atmosphere sufficient for the purpose of maintaining life. It is wrong, a real harm to human beings, to deprive them of oxygen. By like reasoning, it is wrong for any social system to deprive whole populations of that which they require from the natural environment.
The existence of classes does not complicate the metaphysics of objectivity. If classes can be identified they must have a definite social function. The interests of the members of the class would coincide with being able to access that which they need in order to continue their function. The problem arises when one attributes to classes interests that cannot be satisfied within the existing structure of society. The problem here is not that such interests might not be real or impossible to establish. If objective human interests are present in all classes, but cannot be satisfied by one class given its structural position in capitalist society, then it is straightforward to specify the structures that must be overcome in order to realize those human interests. The problem is not theoretical specification of objectives, but absence of desire.
What happens when there are sound theoretical arguments that not only purport to demonstrate but do in fact demonstrate with as much certainty as the subject matter admits of that people, because of their class position, are systematically impeded from realizing their human interests, but these arguments, though true, do not produce any political movement amongst the class (or subaltern groups more generally) whose interests are not satisfied? Not only are basic human interests not being satisfied, those who are deprived know they are being deprived, articulate the pain of that deprivation publically in their own words (they cannot be accused of being dupes of Marxist ideologues) and yet do not move.
There is acknowledged need for fundamental social change, but no desire to bring that change about.
If we look at the recent history of Arab revolutions, including Libya and Syria, if we look at the great revolutions of the seventeenth (England) eighteenth (the United States and France), the nineteenth (the wave of complex liberal-democratic, national-popular, and socialist revolutions that swept Europe in 1848), and the twentieth (the Russian and Chinese Revolutions and the immense wave of anti-colonial nationalist revolutions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America) what all share in common is that the target of the revolution was a ruling class whose power and legitimacy in no way depended upon the consent (howsoever contrived and superficial such consent might be) of the majority of people. In other words, it was the absence of any formal mechanism of accountability of rulers to the ruled that turned opposition into revolutionary force. Absolute monarchs felt morally superior to their subjects, they were beheaded. Colonial authorities felt racially superior to their subjects; they were driven back to the home country by armed force.
The inability to bear the absolute disrespect for, contempt or denial of, the humanity of the subaltern in situations of unaccountable authoritarian rule drives people at a cellular level to any sacrifice. Increasingly, we inhabit just such structures of unaccountable authoritarian rule in what used to be called but no longer should be referred to as “liberal democracies,” for they are neither liberal ( governed by constitutional limitations of the exercise of state power) nor democratic (governed by the people in their shared life-interests). Nevertheless, these societies retain the appearance of liberal-democracy, because the formal institutions of accountability have not been eliminated. Their persistence has real political implications.
The experience of radical oppositional politics in the global North in the twentieth and now twenty-first century has followed this script: Every serious political crisis since the Russian Revolution (and especially the wave of worker-student uprisings in the late 1960′s) has been defused, because the ruling classes acknowledge– even if not sincerely– the democratic legitimacy of the demands for radical change. The point is not that ruling classes ever agree to changes that are in reality radical; the point is that oppositional forces, employing the language of democracy and demanding accountability on those terms, find it impossible not to agree to dialogue, elections, and so forth when offered. The way in which the Quebec student strike of 2012 was ended is the most recent case in point. Once agreed to, the movement splits into small bands of outliers who warn that the ruling class is not sincere. True as these warnings are, they always go unheeded. Why? Because as totalitarian and paranoid and unjust and spiritually bankrupt as modern capitalist society has become, it has not yet lost legitimacy.
Over the course of the winter I was a member of my union’s Motivating the Membership Committee. We visited all the departments and schools of the university, engaging the membership in frank discussion about the state of the union and the future they want for it, and arguing with them that the best union is a democratic union and a democratic union relies upon the energies of its members. A colleague in law did us the courtesy of expressing bluntly what other colleagues were too polite to say: “We elect you guys to do this work. We don’t have time for it. So you do the job that you were elected to do and keep us informed.”
Is this not the way in which the wider working classes relate to the social problems that affect them? In response to calls to build “democratic socialism” they seem to respond: “Though we are suffering and though we want a solution, we do not want to disrupt our lives in order to build that future.”
But: the demonstrations, the manifestos, the books, the articles, the projects, the programs…
But: look at the size of the demonstrations, and then compare them to the size of crowds at a soccer game, or a hockey game, or a concert, or an overnight line-up for the latest gadget.
About a month ago I was at a retirement dinner for Ron Aronson, a legendary Detroit radical educator and activist who was stepping down after forty years at Wayne State University. He gave a moving farewell address under the title, “Whatever happened to progress?” In the front of the room his granddaughter fidgeted with her iphone while her grandfather spoke. He asked whether smartphones were really elements of the sort of social progress people actually require.
Most of the people in the room were older leftists for whom the answer was no– the gadgets are useful, but we have lived without them, and could do so again, and happily. Theirs (and mine) is/was a socialism of a cultivated humanist ethos–a different way of living and relating, a different scale of valuing nature, society, self, and others, a welcoming of a different set of demands upon the self and its capacities to contribute to others’ well-being.
But their fight is almost over; my generation struggles only to hang on to the achievements of the previous generation. And for the new generation, new modes of relationship are evolving. Although these modes often seem one-dimensional and unsatisfying to those who grew up when there was no alternative to the material sociality of live bodies co-present in physical space, for those who have never lived without the internet and the virtual social networks it enables, material co-presence is reduced to one option in a drop-down menu of seemingly infinite possibilities for relation and sharing.
But are the virtues and values of virtual reality– the ever unfolding, playful and inchoate churning together of the high and low, the erudite and the idiotic, the sublime and the cute, the irreverent and the conformist, the public and the private, the engaged and the frivolous, the sacred and the profane– the virtues and values of ”a social and economic system based on direct democracy in politics and economy and on democratically planned production?”