Every generation has the right to give itself political definition through its reactions to major events. For a period after WWII, generations in the West clearly took this opportunity to define themselves as more progressive than preceding generations: first through music and nonconformism, then civil rights marches, then the protests opposing the war in Vietnam.
But by the late ’70s this progressive tendency had tapered off. The paragon of socialist existence, the Soviet Union, had become an authoritarian power run by uninspiring octogenarians. Meanwhile, planned economies were unable to produce either economic prosperity or just income distributions, leading formerly communist powers in East Asian to slowly embrace forms of capitalism. The revolution, it seemed, was dead; liberal market capitalism had reached “the End of History”.
But here we are, post 9/11 and post Wall Street crash, and clearly there has no been no ‘End’ to any ‘History’. Indeed we should reflect on one increasingly central feature of our contemporary political time-frame: what unites the protests of Tahrir, Taksim, Syntagma, Sao Paolo, and who knows where tomorrow?
On this, I have two things to say.
The first pertains just to the “Arab Spring.” It is common to think (and I made a similar point before) that the protests in Tahrir (and Tunisia, etc.) were part of a dynamic unique to the Arab world, while Taksim and Syntagma are part of a different global, anti-capitalist movement. I now think perhaps we should amend this thesis in the following way. It is true that the developments in the Middle East, from the rise of the MB in Egypt to the war in Syria, have a dynamic that is particular to these authoritarian Arab states. But ironically, I think the protests that started these developments, in particular Tahrir, were likely more closely related to the global protests of Syntagma (and recently Taksim) than to the fraught dynamic currently playing out in the Arab world. The protests in Tahrir were not tailor-made to addressing Egypt’s particular political structure: it was the same young people with the same bandanas and the same twitter accounts that we see protesting against ‘dictatorship’ and ‘corruption’ in Taksim and Sao Paolo today. It just so happened that these young people in Tahrir achieved more significant results (due to the fragility inherent in dictatorship) than have so far been achieved in other places. This, at least, is my first conjecture.
My second point is about the global protests themselves. One thing we can note with admiration is that these ‘occupy’ protests are, in what really is a surprise, succeeding in returning my own generation of the late 80’s and early 90’s back to the progressive politics of the 60’s and 70’s. This is a development that goes much beyond the actual protesters in any particular place. There is a mindset (a ‘global mood’, so-to-say) that these protesters succeed in capturing which is shared by a large portion of 20-something-year-olds today. This ‘global mood’ is a sense (akin to the sense that pervaded the 60s) that capitalism and traditional politics are controlled by powerful interests that are antagonistic to the public and its interests, including, supposedly, the environment and good, wholesome ways of living life. As such, we can say, the protests spreading around the world signal a particular refutation of the End of History thesis: the return of popular socialism.
However, there is one important caveat in this regard. The return of socialism in the form of ‘occupy’ protests is emphatically a return of socialism without the politics. Today’s protestors do not affiliate themselves with parties or programs; they do not enter the political arena to obtain particular political goals, or even to actually alter the system entirely. The common refrain is that politics ‘are all hopeless anyway’. As such, today’s protesters want socialism in the abstract: ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ like equality, fairness and non-materialist modes of existence, but not any particular potentially feasible practice embodying these values.
What underlies this reality-aversion of today’s young socialists? Far from ‘laziness’ or ‘proneness to distraction’, to which some curmudgeons would point, I think this reality-aversion constitutes a deep reaction to the history of socialism. Socialism failed not for its ideals but for its practice: its inability to establish a functioning economic system, and its much more morally heinous failure to guarantee human rights and liberty. This is the heritage that young protesters today find themselves compelled to reject: the practical, political path to revolution lies strewn with gulags and dead bodies.
At the same time, however, let me posit here that it’s precisely their aversion to power and the political that will be the death knell to today’s protests. In diverging from Marx by positing that the socialist revolution must transition through rule by an ‘elite vanguard’, Lenin’s deep insight was that, the human condition being what it is, ultimately the key to any success must lie in the political and the possession of power. There simply is no wishing away who actually controls the apparatus of the state– one will never arrive at that Utopian end time where the Leninist ruling class can be done away with and the people can truly embrace self-rule. As such, any idealism that predicates itself on this latter idea will have one of two futures: either it will be totally ineffectual itself, or if it is effectual, it will inevitably fall prey to some more shrewd party ready to hijack its efforts through the use of power. Cue Stalin (and, indeed, Lenin himself).
As such, if today’s occupy protesters truly want to change the current capitalist system with its moneyed interests, they will have to overcome their historical distaste for thinking about power. They will have to re-embrace the political.
[Note: one interesting element to reflect on this regard is that this attention for power, not in any vestigial sense such as in Leninism, but as the central focus was always one of the critical practical advantages fascism had over socialism; socialism often had the ideals, but fascism knew how to get its way]