Three years after the 2005 riots in the suburbs of France post-Marxist sociologist, Slavoj Zizek, wrote that the rebellion was meaningless and without “any positive utopian vision.”
Enter: a post-ideological era.
It’s not that we no longer have ideologies, of course, but the dominating capitalist ideology has disguised itself so well that the ruling class can get away with unfounded impassés. We say “economy” instead of “capitalism”; we say “journalism” instead of “spectacle”; “community policing” instead of “racial profiling”, etc.
Above all, what better proof is there of capitalism’s triumph in the last three decades, Zizek asks, than the disappearance of the very term “capitalism”? Or perhaps the disappearance of an anti-capitalist narrative? And the disappearance of an “anti-social” narrative, where social unrest – especially ‘violent’ unrest – is “anti-social”, and violent social stratification is ordinary.
“The fact that there was no program in the burning of Paris suburbs tells us that we inhabit a universe in which, though it celebrates itself as a society of choice, the only option available to the enforced democratic consensus is the explosion of (self-)destructive violence.”
This is the most difficult task for us. To be able to explain why – what looks like “self-destructive violence” – is actually a tremendous breakthrough. There is a tendency, however, to see unplanned explosions of revolt as “without program”. Zizek contrasts the suburb riots with May 1968’s positive utopian vision in France. But it is true that even in 1968, the social rupture had no clear objectives most of the time either.
“The fact was that to anyone who asked rationally enough ‘What do you want?’ I had no answer,” said a radical recalling the first Night of Barricades. “I couldn’t say that I didn’t even know who these comrades were, couldn’t say that I was demonstrating for the sake of demonstrating.”
In other words he couldn’t say whether the outburst had any program, at least that he was aware of. The promise of a better world lying beneath the cobblestone street can seem like a surreal joke, once it failed to meet its objectives. Having expected nothing less than the overthrow of the dominant social order, the surreal then turned on itself.
Jacques Lacan was similarly pessimistic, though he and Foucault, too, befriended the ’68 radicals – became themselves ’68 radicals. Foucault threw the cobblestones at police from an occupied university building. Lacan’s challenge to the spirit of ’68 was this: “As revolutionaries, you are hysterics who demand a new master. You will get one.”
That prediction came true. The Gaullist regime disappeared; postmodern times came after, and May ’68 was not a revolution – at least not politically or economically. Now in the shadow of their failed expectation, we live in an age where revolt is supposedly not utopian, not positive, and is not articulated. We have a stronger master, and a more sophisticated super-structure.
A photograph from Greece this week:
Underneath the broken cobblestones there is still a beachhead, though for some the utopian vision seems a bit quaint. What is our program? It goes without saying that we want a world without presidents and prime ministers; we want worlds of our own constructed with directly democratic structures, not states. We start by breaking the spell. And then, piece by piece, regain control over our lives through cooperation.
We realize that surrealism is a success. – At least in the context of a world that has yet to be fundamentally transformed. We realize that for the most part we are playing this game, naturally, with our hands tied behind our backs.
An image from a Swedish newspaper:
Only in the context of a game where we are able to cooperate fully are we successful. The continuing delay of mass action devoted to cooperative activity, however, along with inadequacies in counter-culture, have reduced our vision to pitfalls, recuperations, and dead-ends.
Meanwhile Zizek is partaking in the offensive gossip about angry, violent anarchist youth. What do they want? They have seen tremendous increases in the amount of wealth accumulation, through trade, through the exploitation of Africa, etc. without any corresponding increase in the real possibilities of everyday life through deliberate forms of democracy. There is more stuff to fill the lives of Americans and Europeans, but less food elsewhere, and less democracy everywhere.
When tipped off, it becomes riot. It results in outbursts without programs. We react cruelly against the cruel world we find ourselves stuck in, by burning down Christmas trees, by destroying police cars. Some riots may have lacked pretense to a particular kind of vision – one that requires privileged or experienced people to write communiques and press releases – but they still reflect the surrealist state of mind.
Underneath the police car, the pavement. And the beach? Not far away…