Web Only / Features » October 26, 2011
The Violent Silence of a New Beginning
The Occupy protests are important, but soon the difficult question must be answered: What social organization can replace capitalism?
We should avoid the temptation of the narcissism of the lost cause. What new positive order should replace the old one the day after, when the sublime enthusiasm of the uprising is over?
What to do after the Wall Street occupation, after the protests that started far away (Middle East, Greece, Spain, UK) reached the center, and now, reinforced, roll back around the world? One of the great dangers the protesters face is that they will fall in love with themselves, with the nice time they are having in the “occupied” places. In a San Francisco echo of the Wall Street occupation on October 16, a guy invited the crowd to participate as if it was a hippy-style happening in the 1960s: “They are asking us what is our program. We have no program. We are here to have a good time.”
Carnivals come cheap–the test of their worth is what remains the day after, and how they change our normal daily life. The protesters should fall in love with hard and patient work – they are the beginning, not the end. Their basic message should be: The taboo is broken. We do not live in the best possible world. We are obliged to think about alternatives.
The Western Left has come full circle: After abandoning the so-called “class struggle essentialism” for the plurality of anti-racist, feminist, gay rights etc., struggles, “capitalism” is now re-emerging as the name of THE problem. So the first lesson to be learned is: Do not blame people and their attitudes. The problem is not corruption or greed, the problem is the system that pushes you to be corrupt. The solution is not found in the slogan “Main Street, not Wall Street,” but to change the system in which Main Street cannot function without Wall Street.
There is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions–questions not about what we do not want, but rather about what we DO want. What social organization can replace the existing capitalism? What type of new leaders do we need? What new institutions, including those of control, should we shape? The 20th century alternatives obviously did not work.
It is thrilling to enjoy the pleasures of the “horizontal organization” of protesting crowds with egalitarian solidarity and open-ended free debates, but as we do so we should bear in mind the words of Gilbert Keith Chesterton: “Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
This holds also for politics in times of uncertainty: The open-ended debates will have to coalesce not only in some new Master-Signifiers, but also in concrete answers to the old question: “What is to be done?”
What the protesters are not
The direct conservative attacks are easy to answer.
Are the protests un-American? When conservative fundamentalists claim that America is a Christian nation, one should remember what Christianity is: the Holy Spirit, the free egalitarian community of believers united by love. It is the protesters who are the Holy Spirit, while on Wall Street pagans worship false idols.
Are the protesters violent? True, their very language may appear violent (occupation, and so on), but they are violent in the sense in which Mahatma Gandhi was violent. They are violent because they want to put a stop to the way things are done – –but what is this violence compared to the violence needed to sustain the smooth functioning of the global capitalist system?
The protesters are called “losers” – but the true losers are on Wall Street, bailed out by hundreds of billions of our money.
They are called socialists. But in the United States, there already is socialism for the rich.
They are accused of not respecting private property – but the Wall Street speculations that led to the crash of 2008 erased more hard-earned private property than if the protesters were to be destroying it night and day. Think of the tens of thousands of homes foreclosed.
They are not communists, if communism means the system that deservedly collapsed in 1990. The communists who are still in power run the world’s most ruthless capitalist system (China). The success of Chinese Communist-run capitalism is a sign that the marriage between capitalism and democracy is approaching a divorce.
The only sense in which the protesters are communists is that they care for the commons–the commons of nature, of knowledge–that are threatened by the system.
The protesters are dismissed as dreamers, but the true dreamers are those who think that things can go on indefinitely the way they are, just with some cosmetic changes.
The protesters are the awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare. They are not destroying anything. They are reacting to a system that is gradually destroying itself.
We all know the classic scene from cartoons: The cat reaches a precipice, but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. What the protesters are doing is reminding those in power to look down.
Beware false friends
Refuting such falsehoods is the easy part. The protesters should beware not only of enemies, but also of false friends already working hard to dilute the protest. In the same way we get coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice cream without fat, those in power will try to make the protests into a harmless moralistic gesture.
In boxing, to “clinch” means to hold the opponent’s body with one or both arms in order to prevent or hinder punches. Bill Clinton’s reaction to the Wall Street protests is a perfect case of political clinching; Clinton thinks that the protests are “on balance…a positive thing,” but on October 12 he worried about the nebulousness of the cause: “They need to be for something specific, and not just against something, because if you’re just against something, someone else will fill the vacuum you create.” Clinton suggested the protesters get behind President Obama’s jobs plan, which he claimed would create “a couple million jobs in the next year and a half.”
What one should resist at this stage is precisely such a quick translation of the energy of the protest into a set of “concrete” pragmatic demands. Yes, the protests did create a vacuum – a vacuum in the field of hegemonic ideology, and time is needed to fill this vacuum in a proper way, since it is a pregnant vacuum, an opening for the truly New.
The protesters are occupying streets and parks because they have had enough of a world where recycling Coke cans, giving a couple of dollars for charity, or buying a Starbucks cappuccino where 1 percent goes for the Third World troubles is enough to make them feel good. After seeing work and torture outsourced, after matchmaking agencies even started to outsource dating, they realized they had been allowing their political engagement to also be outsourced – and they want it back.
The art of politics is to insist on a particular demand that while thoroughly “realistic” also disturbs the very core of the hegemonic ideology, i.e. which, while definitely feasible and legitimate, is de facto impossible (universal healthcare in the United States was such a case). As the Wall Street protests continue, we should mobilize people around such demands.
At the same time it is important to simultaneously remain subtracted from the pragmatic field of negotiations and “realist” proposals. Everything we say now can be taken (recuperated) from us – everything except our silence. This silence, this rejection of dialogue, of all forms of clinching, is ominous and threatening to the establishment, as it should be.
Wall Street protests are a beginning, and one has to begin like that. A formal gesture of rejection is more important than positive content, because only such a gesture opens up the space for a new content. So we should not be terrorized by the perennial question: “But what do they want?” After all, this is the archetypal question addressed by a male master to a hysterical woman: “You whine and you complain, but do you know at all what you really want?” In the psychoanalytic sense, the protests effectively are a hysterical act, provoking the master, undermining his authority. And the question “But what do you want?” aims precisely to preclude the true answer – its real purpose is: “Tell it in my terms or shut up!”
Finding the right questions
This, of course, does not mean that the protesters should be pampered and flattered. Today, more than ever, intellectuals should combine their full support of the protesters with a non-patronizing cold analytic distance, beginning with the probe into the protesters’ self-designation as 99 percent against the greedy 1 percent: How many of the 99 percent are ready to accept the protesters as their voice, and to what extent?
We should avoid the temptation of the narcissism of the lost cause, of admiring the sublime beauty of uprisings doomed to fail. What new positive order should replace the old one the day after, when the sublime enthusiasm of the uprising is over?
If we take a closer look at the well-known manifesto of Spain’s original indignados (the angry ones), published this past spring, we are in for a surprise. The first thing that strikes the eye is the pointedly apolitical tone:
Some of us consider ourselves progressive, others conservative. Some of us are believers, some not. Some of us have clearly defined ideologies, others are apolitical, but we are all concerned and angry about the political, economic, and social outlook which we see around us: corruption among politicians, businessmen, bankers, leaving us helpless, without a voice.
They voice their protest on behalf of the “inalienable truths that we should abide by in our society: the right to housing, employment, culture, health, education, political participation, free personal development, and consumer rights for a healthy and happy life.” Rejecting violence, they call for an “ethical revolution. Instead of placing money above human beings, we shall put it back to our service. We are people, not products. I am not a product of what I buy, why I buy and who I buy from.”
Who will be the agent of such a revolution? The entire political class, Right and Left, is dismissed as corrupted and controlled by the lust for power, but the manifesto nonetheless consists of a series of demands addressed to–whom? Not the people themselves: the indignados do not (yet) claim that no one will do it for them, that (to paraphrase Gandhi) they themselves have to be the change they want to see.
Who, then, does know what to do? Faced with the demands of the protesters, intellectuals are definitely not in the position of the subjects supposed to know: They cannot operationalize these demands and translate them into proposals for precise and detailed realistic measures. With the fall of the 20th century Communism, intellectuals forever forfeited the role of the vanguard that knows the laws of history and can guide the innocents along its path.
So is this not a deadlock: a blind man leading a blind man, or, more precisely, each of them presupposing the other is not blind? No, because their respective ignorance is not symmetrical: It is the people who have the answers, they just don’t know the questions to which they have (or, rather, are) the answer.
In Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance, John Berger wrote about the “multitudes” of those who found themselves on the wrong side of the Wall (which divides those who are in from those who are out):
The multitudes have answers to questions which have not yet been posed, and they have the capacity to outlive the walls.
The questions are not yet asked because to do so requires words and concepts which ring true, and those currently being used to name events have been rendered meaningless: Democracy, Liberty, Productivity, etc.With new concepts the questions will soon be posed, for history involves precisely such a process of questioning. Soon? Within a generation.
The situation is like that of psychoanalysis, where the patient knows the answer (his symptoms are such answers) but doesn’t know what they are answers to, and it is up to the analyst to formulate the appropriate questions. We should treat the demands of the Wall Street protests in a similar way: Instead of wondering “What are they asking for? What are their demands and what are their proposed programs?”, intellectuals should see the Occupy protests as the answers for which we are not yet asking the right questions.
Only through such patient work will a program emerge.
Portions of this article are drawn from a speech to Occupy Wall Street protesters at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan on October 10.
Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, in Essen, Germany. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many other books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Fragile Absolute and Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? He lives in London.