Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Revolution or Delinking?

My general purpose with the blog has been to provoke thought about questions that are rarely considered. I may make suggestions or undermine particular assumptions, but that does not mean that I feel like I have all the answers. I am just tired of the usual discussions; I want to think about the foundations of our social structure and imagine other possibilities. With that in mind, I try to tackle some common Marxist and reformist assumptions in this post without necessarily coming to any definite conclusions (regardless of the tone I take).

Moving on from the dilemma of policy change versus systemic transformation, I would like to consider the mechanism and possibilities for social change in greater detail. Following directly from reform v. transformation, one the of the most significant questions debated by those on Left is whether or not it is worthwhile to attempt change through political processes. Some argue that gradual reforms at the level of policy are more feasible than abrupt, large-scale transformations. If we ignore politics, they contend, we are doomed to failure. The other camp (with whom I tend to agree) replies that political change is merely cosmetic and does nothing to change the basic social order. Other avenues will be opened to maintain inequality and oppression when one pathway is blocked. And whatever “progress” is achieved is generally insignificant in the grand scheme of things (like re-wallpapering your house when it is structurally unsound and filled with asbestos). Trying to change the world through political processes is like trying to hold the dam with your finger.

However, I think the former group raises an important point when they insist that grand, sweeping revolution is not as feasible. If one examines history, it is clear that the only revolution which had any lasting and systemic impact was the bourgeois revolution (the various peasant rebellions and even the twentieth century communist revolutions did not seriously challenge the hegemony of global capitalism, else our world would look quite different today). The reason the bourgeois revolution was so successful on a global scale is because the incipient bourgeoisie had for centuries been developing their own institutions and domains of authority that existed independently from those of the existing social order. When that social order was challenged, there was something else there to take its place. The same cannot be said of the forces that currently seek to subvert the status quo. Right now, nothing else exists.

Michel Foucault, in a conversation with Noam Chomsky, insisted that it was impossible to envision change within the current system.  The problem is that our consciousness is too permeated by the structures (physical and ideological) of the current system, even at the level of the language that we use (e.g. "justice").  Foucault contended that the task of someone who desires change is to study the subtle, overlooked mechanisms of power, in order that it may be resisted and subverted. The question is, though, how long must we continue to study?  At what point do we take action?  The bourgeoisie didn't accomplish a revolution by extensive observation.  They simply got to work forging their own institutions.  And all institutions comprising the modern world, as a consequence of the revolution, are bourgeois institutions.  Foucault does provide an important insight for us:  revolution will have to be total.  No existing institution or ideology can be preserved.  They are all bourgeois through and through.  We must start from scratch.

There is another lesson from history. The weak never win. The bourgeois were the only successful revolutionaries and they were seeking domination rather than liberation.

Then there is the issue of what would follow revolution. Marx was vague about his conception of a communist utopia, but he was clear about his belief that revolution required a single, global movement (a united proletariat). Many socialists hope for a single world government (a socialist word government, of course). No matter what, though, the idea of revolution generally entails some sort of unity. This, more than anything else, makes revolution seem so unachievable. We must also consider more deeply whether unity is actually desirable. I have already questioned both the practical feasibility and the desirability of a single world government. In sum, I pointed out that it would entail more extensive technologies of social control, would create a whole new set of dangers as authority became increasingly concentrated and centralized, and would likely intensify ideological differences (at the same time as it tried to homogenize all difference) because of the high stakes involved in every policy decision. The social evolutionary desire for a single world government is also tied to latently racist ideas of the superiority of Western, secular culture (which, of course, would be universally adopted).

One problem with this idea of a single world society is the findings of sociological research that estimates the optimal group size to be rather small (say, around 150). There are many benefits (economic, physical, emotional) associated with maintaining the types of social bonds and communal solidarity that cannot exist as easily in larger groups. Furthermore, one must face the fact that social/cultural diversity will never be erased. There is nothing to be gained from trying impose a single worldview on everyone. That is not, of course, to say that people should live in isolated groups, or that they can never get along with or even understand people who think differently. I only suggest that people have different ideas about how to live their lives and organize their communities, and they should be free to do that as they please. If a group wishes to organize a community based on the principles of Sharia law, then so be it.

What that in mind, there is a principle that Marx expounded, which may be useful in rethinking revolution. Marx conceived of social evolution in cyclical rather than linear form. He believed that what would follow capitalism would in some ways be a throw-back to “primitive communism” (in which people lived in small social groups based primarily on kinship affiliations), yet with a new twist: technology. The new form of communism would be more enlightened, and with the aid of technology, allow for more dignified human occupations. I do not believe that Marx was ever clear about the size of the community(ies) involved in enlightened communism (if someone knows, please chime in and correct me), but regardless, the general principle may still be applicable.

What if we were to return to a more decentralized, communal social organization, yet continue to incorporate modern technologies into the production process? I can envision a world where communities keep up their own gardens and handcraft things like clothes and furniture; they also specialize in the production of one or more other goods that can be sold to other communities (and likewise purchase specially produced goods from other communities). The internet could facilitate widespread movement of products and ideas. Through the internet, people could maintain contact with others around the world; and movement from community to community would occur with ease (as has been true throughout human history). There would be no need for provincialism. Hopefully, though, materialism could be eradicated. People wouldn’t need to update their wardrobes with the change of every season, and collectible junk would be seen for what it is: useless. This is purely idealistic, of course.

If such a world were to exist, it would not require some large-scale, unified revolution. It would only require groups of people to decide, on their own, not to participate in the capitalist system. If everyone simply stopped participating, the system could not continue. Cessation of participation does not require any large-scale coordination. People can pull out on their own terms. In this respect, I greatly admire the Zapatistas and hold them as an exemplar of how to escape capitalism. It is possible to delink. Although the Zapatistas have not eschewed violence, one benefit of delinking is that it does not require violence (for those who oppose violence on principle, that is a huge benefit).

It is an interesting question to consider whether delinking as a paradigm for social transformation is more feasible and desirable than revolution. It seems less impressive, to be sure. But even if delinking isn’t the answer, the broader question is: why can’t we seem to think past revolution? We are given the choice of reform or revolution, and neither seems entirely satisfactory. So maybe we should try to find a third way.

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