The rise of the Real Democracy Movement exposes the divorce of power and politics at the heart of the capitalist state. Autonomy is the only way forward.
You may resist the invasion of an army, but you cannot stop an idea whose time has come. ~ Victor Hugo
In the present conjuncture, an old but important question arises — both for the movements that kicked off in 2011 and for the ones currently underway in Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere: what is to be done? According to some, including prominent leftist thinkers like Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, the spontaneous and autonomous character of the new revolutions poses a number of risks. Most importantly, these critics argue, the lack of centralized leadership and the fetishism of horizontality that define these movements risk condemning them to an ephemeral existence with limited influence on concrete political outcomes. Without the necessary structuring leadership of what Badiou and Žižek call the Master – presumably in the form of a radical party – the protests are bound to resemble nothing more than flash mobs, marked by temporary explosions of carnivalesque contestation that ultimately do little to undermine the deeper power relations that constitute capitalist society. In the most cynical of these interpretations, the new revolutions could even end up reinforcing capitalism.
This idea of revolution as event is perpetuated in a new guise in the work of Badiou and Žižek, who focus on the event as a moment of rupture allowing possibilities to emerge that did not exist before. In this view, and somewhat simplistically put, the Egyptian uprising that started on January 25, 2011 created possibilities that did not exist on January 24. But while the notion of the revolutionary event as a “rupture” is potentially very useful — and we will return to it later — to equate “the revolution” as such with the event would be highly problematic. After all, such a conflation only makes sense for the type of political program that stakes its entire raison d’être upon the singular insurrectionary event leading to the seizure of state power (admittedly Badiou is more subtle on this: see his latest piece on Turkey, for instance). The problem with the conceptualization of revolution as event is that it ultimately hinges upon a mystification of the notion of possibility. Where did the new possibility itself emerge from? If it arose from the moment of rupture created by the popular insurrection, then was it not always-already a latent possibility? If popular insurrections allow new possibilities to emerge, is that not the same as saying that those possibilities had so far simply remained hidden from view as the multitude’s un-actualized potentiality for revolt?
Besides, the revolutionary event has a value in itself that cannot simply be reduced to any binary metric of victory and defeat (which, not coincidentally, is always measured in terms of whether the movement (a) achieved its demands; or (b) took state power). In What Is Philosophy? the French thinkers Deleuze and Guattari remind us that “the success of a revolution resides only in itself, precisely in the vibrations, clinches, and openings it gave to men and women at the moment of its making and that composes in itself a monument that is always in the process of becoming.” In this sense, they argue, “the victory of a revolution is immanent and consists in the new bonds it installs between people, even if these bonds last no longer than the revolution’s fused material and quickly give way to division and betrayal.” This view of the revolutionary event is not just an easy cop-out to deny or justify defeat: speak to anyone who participated in any of the uprisings that have rocked the world over the past two years and they will tell you that their lives have been irrevocably altered (generally for the better) following their their participation in the insurrectionary event.
In this sense, insurrections have impacts that are far more diffuse and invisible — but nevertheless just as concrete and real — than any armchair socialist or conservative critic could ever understand. They have the power to transform consciousness and permanently alter the individual’s and the multitude’s attitude towards society; but they also have the power to transform the material practices that undergird the dominant forms of capitalist sociality, thereby helping to disseminate alternative forms of social organization like the assembly, the worker-run cooperative and the commune — all of which may one day come to form the organizational bedrock of the autonomous society. Here, Castoriadis was once again correct to note that revolutionary events, even if they fail to visibly bring about any immediate changes in the material constitution of society, are still a crucial component of the revolutionary process because they contribute towards the ideological maturation of the revolutionary subject, as well as the flourishing of alternative practices and their early development into new forms of organization that may one day come to supplant the institutions of the capitalist state.