All posts tagged: reform

The danger of fetishizing revolution

Originally published at Waging Nonviolence.

(Flickr/tetedelacourse)  

What do contact with extraterrestrials, the return of Jesus Christ, apocalypse, and revolution all have in common? In a sense, they are all imagined redemptions — epic reset buttons for humanity. Onto these we can pin our heartbreaks and frustrations with the world as it is, with all its suffering, mire and messy details. Any of these redemptive apocalypses can serve as the X that solves the daunting problem of our sense of impotency. This messianic X — this unknown and imaginary seismic intervention — might help us to hold onto a kind of hope despite overwhelming evidence of a hopeless reality. Somehow, someday, something will occur that stops the madness, and we will be able to begin anew.

We need hope — in life and also in political mobilization. Hope is an essential ingredient in scaling up collective action beyond the limited pool of martyrs, saints and counter-cultural usual suspects. Organizing large-scale collective power requires something of an art of raising popular hopes and expectations. A long-term vision of a radically transformed world can be an important grounding for such hope. And isn’t such radical transformation precisely the idea of social and political revolution? Isn’t it a bit unfair to include revolution as an item on the same list as the Biblical end of days?

Perhaps it is a bit unfair. It depends on whether we mean revolution as horizon or revolution as apocalypse. Do we imagine a revolutionary restructuring of power relations in society as an all-or-nothing totalizing moment or as an aspirational horizon, something to always be moving towards? If the former, then what incentive do we have to study the details of the terrain where we are presently situated? Why would we bother to strategize about overcoming the particular obstacles that block our way today, if we believe that the accumulation of all obstacles will ultimately add up to a grand crisis that will somehow magically usher in a new era? Believing that things will “have to get worse before they get better,” we may become disinterested in — perhaps even sabotaging of — efforts to improve real-life conditions in the here and now. After all, why put a band-aid on a gaping wound? Why prolong the life of an oppressive system? With such logic we can excuse ourselves from the trouble of getting to know our political terrain. It is, after all, the very mess we hope to avoid.

Is government a contestable space?

Yesterday in Revolution! (wait, what are we talking about?), I essentially argued, among other things, that there may be harm in framing our social, economic, and political change efforts in the United States today in a term whose applicability may be historically contingent. The word revolution, I suggested, conjures the idea of overthrowing a government, and as such is descriptive of a particular model of transformation that only applies to the radical overhaul of particular kinds of oppressive governments, e.g. feudalism, monarchies, dictatorships, and colonial governments. The harm, I suggested, comes from the uncritical and unqualified dichotomization of revolution vs. reformism in some activist circles, where the former is exalted and the latter dissed. If we reject revolution vs. reformism as a false dichotomy and embrace that reforms (i.e. winning real improvements in real people’s lives now) are important, then another question arises: Is government a contestable space? If winning reforms is important, the practical consolidation will necessarily involve some kind of government action. And forcing some kind of government action will necessarily involve a …

Revolution! (wait, what are we talking about?)

I like to fancy myself a revolutionary… blah blah what does that even mean? I’d like to suggest for a minute that maybe the words revolution and revolutionary have been mostly emptied of their contents; that their meanings are more than slightly ambiguous, even among their proponents (I’m talking specifically within the United States); that they serve largely as references to inspirational historical moments and as signifiers of belonging (i.e. “getting it”) within some radical groups, organizations and subcultures — much more than these words presently (again, in the US) suggest an instructive path or framework for social, economic and political change. There. I said it. The danger of questioning a signifier of belonging is that it can call into question one’s own belonging in the group where the signifier is operating! So, when we say revolution, I think we’re mostly vaguely refering to the overthrow of governments — and in specific historical circumstances. Social justice-directed revolutions have overthrown monarchies, feudal systems, and colonial governments. I don’t know of a single Left-direction revolution in this sense (i.e. …