Maybe There is Something Wrong with our Notion of Paradise

Slavoj Žižek, one of the more public philosophers of our day, considers the difference between revolution and reformation. On which cusp do we find ourselves today? He identifies two traps that must be avoided in order to answer the question and possibly effect some change: false radicalism and false gradualism. This London Review of Books piece is certainly worth a bit of your time.

…Today’s protests and revolts are sustained by the combination of overlapping demands, and this accounts for their strength: they fight for ‘normal’, parliamentary democracy against authoritarian regimes; against racism and sexism, especially when directed at immigrants and refugees; against corruption in politics and business (industrial pollution of the environment etc); for the welfare state against neoliberalism; and for new forms of democracy that reach beyond multi-party rituals. They also question the global capitalist system as such and try to keep alive the idea of a society beyond capitalism. Two traps are to be avoided here: false radicalism (‘what really matters is the abolition of liberal-parliamentary capitalism, all other fights are secondary’), but also false gradualism (‘right now we should fight against military dictatorship and for basic democracy, all dreams of socialism should be put aside for now’). Here there is no shame in recalling the Maoist distinction between principal and secondary antagonisms, between those that matter most in the end and those that dominate now. There are situations in which to insist on the principal antagonism means to miss the opportunity to strike a significant blow in the struggle.

Only a politics that fully takes into account the complexity of overdetermination deserves to be called a strategy. When we join a specific struggle, the key question is: how will our engagement in it or disengagement from it affect other struggles? The general rule is that when a revolt against an oppressive half-democratic regime begins, as with the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilise large crowds with slogans – for democracy, against corruption etc. But we are soon faced with more difficult choices. When the revolt succeeds in its initial goal, we come to realise that what is really bothering us (our lack of freedom, our humiliation, corruption, poor prospects) persists in a new guise, so that we are forced to recognise that there was a flaw in the goal itself. This may mean coming to see that democracy can itself be a form of un-freedom, or that we must demand more than merely political democracy: social and economic life must be democratised too. In short, what we first took as a failure fully to apply a noble principle (democratic freedom) is in fact a failure inherent in the principle itself. This realisation – that failure may be inherent in the principle we’re fighting for – is a big step in a political education.

Representatives of the ruling ideology roll out their entire arsenal to prevent us from reaching this radical conclusion. They tell us that democratic freedom brings its own responsibilities, that it comes at a price, that it is immature to expect too much from democracy. In a free society, they say, we must behave as capitalists investing in our own lives: if we fail to make the necessary sacrifices, or if we come up short in any way, we have no one to blame but ourselves. In a more directly political sense, the US has consistently pursued a strategy of damage control in its foreign policy by re-channelling popular uprisings into acceptable parliamentary-capitalist forms: in South Africa after apartheid, in the Philippines after the fall of Marcos, in Indonesia after Suharto etc. This is where politics proper begins: the question is how to push further once the first, exciting wave of change is over, how to take the next step without succumbing to the ‘totalitarian’ temptation, how to move beyond Mandela without becoming Mugabe…

Read the entire piece @ Slavoj Žižek · Trouble in Paradise: The Global Protest · LRB 18 July 2013.

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