This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
essay from the London Review of Books. Register for free and enjoy 24 hours of access to the entire LRB archive of over 12,500 essays and reviews. In his early writings, Marx described the German situation as one in which the only answer to particular problems was the universal solution: global revolution. This is a succinct expression of the difference between a reformist and a revolutionary period: in a reformist period, global revolution remains a dream which, if it does anything, merely lends weight to attempts to change things locally; in a revolutionary period, it becomes clear that nothing will improve without radical global change. In this purely formal sense, 1990 was a revolutionary year: it was plain that partial reforms of the Communist states would not do the job and that a total break was needed to resolve even such everyday problems as making sure there was enough for people to eat.
Where do we stand today with respect to this difference? Are the problems and protests of the last few years signs of an approaching global crisis, or are they just minor obstacles that can be dealt with by means of local interventions? The most remarkable thing about the eruptions is that they are taking place not only, or even primarily, at the weak points in the system, but in places which were until now perceived as success stories. We know why people are protesting in Greece or Spain; but why is there trouble in such prosperous or fastdeveloping countries as Turkey, Sweden or Brazil? With hindsight, we might see the Khomeini revolution of 1979 as the original ‘trouble in paradise’, given that it happened in a country that was on the fast-track of pro-Western modernisation, and the West’s staunchest ally in the region. Maybe there is something wrong with our notion of paradise.
Before the current wave of protests, Turkey was hot: the very model of a state able to combine a thriving liberal economy with moderate Islamism, fit for Europe, a welcome contrast to the more ‘European’ Greece, caught in an ideological quagmire and bent on economic self-destruction. True, there were ominous signs here and there (Turkey’s denial of the Armenian holocaust; the arrests of journalists; the unresolved status of the Kurds; calls for a greater Turkey which would resuscitate the tradition of the Ottoman Empire; the occasional imposition of religious laws), but these were dismissed as small stains that should not be allowed to taint the overall picture.
Then the Taksim Square protests exploded. Everyone knows that the planned transformation of a park that borders on Taksim Square in central Istanbul into a shopping centre was not what the protests were ‘really about’, and that a much deeper unease was gaining strength.
The struggle to understand the protests is not just an epistemological one. ‘really’ against religious fundamentalism. In Egypt. and increasingly authoritarian political power. for all their multifariousness. In 2011. just a series of separate local problems. or ‘really’ about any one thing in particular. reduction of public services (healthcare. The privatisation of public space by an Islamist government shows that the two forms of fundamentalism can work hand in hand: it’s a clear sign that the ‘eternal’ marriage between democracy and capitalism is nearing divorce. culture). but they went on even after the measure was revoked. they argued. who declared herself delighted by them. with journalists and theorists trying to explain their true content. The general tendency of today’s global capitalism is towards further expansion of the market. Even among Muslim countries. It is in this context that Greeks are protesting against the rule of international financial capital . In this case the protests were apparently supported by the president. The protests are not ‘really’ against global capitalism. It is crucial that we don’t see the Turkish protests merely as a secular civil society rising up against an authoritarian Islamist regime supported by a silent Muslim majority. creeping enclosure of public space. Here too the protests had exploded in a country which – according to the media. What the majority of those who have participated in the protests are aware of is a fluid feeling of unease and discontent that sustains and unites various specific demands. the Green Revolution in Iran that began in 2009 was against authoritarian Islamism. Global capitalism is a complex process which affects different countries in different ways. the protesters wanted what in other countries the Occupy movement was protesting against: ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. when protests were erupting across Europe and the Middle East. at least – was enjoying an economic boom and had every reason to feel confident about the future. What complicates the picture is the protests’ anti-capitalist thrust: protesters intuitively sense that free-market fundamentalism and fundamentalist Islam are not mutually exclusive. is that they are all reactions against different facets of capitalist globalisation. there were crucial differences: the Arab Spring in Egypt was a protest against a corrupt authoritarian pro-Western regime. Is this just a struggle against corrupt city administration? Is it a struggle against authoritarian Islamist rule? Is it a struggle against the privatisation of public space? The question is open. Dilma Rousseff.The same was true of the protests in Brazil in mid-June: what triggered those was a small rise in the cost of public transport. It is also important to recognise that the protesters aren’t pursuing any identifiable ‘real’ goal. It is easy to see how such a particularisation of protest appeals to defenders of the status quo: there is no threat against the global order as such. and how it is answered will depend on the result of an ongoing political process. education. ‘really’ for civil freedoms and democracy. it is also an ontological struggle over the thing itself. Instead. which is taking place within the protests themselves. many insisted that they shouldn’t be treated as instances of a single global movement. What unites the protests. each was a response to a specific situation.
let us just prevent the slaughter’. or: ‘We have to fight poverty and racism here and now. which is less and less able to provide basic social services. one economic (from corruption to inefficiency to capitalism itself). not just with its particular local corruptions. Once people get deeply engaged in it. something to strive for. precisely. that Egyptians are protesting against a regime supported by the Western powers. discontent with capitalism as a system. i. The same holds for the Occupy movement. are de facto impossible. The art of politics lies in making particular demands which. It is in this context too that Turks are protesting against the commercialisation of public space and against religious authoritarianism. one by one: 'People are dying now in Rwanda. there is an opportunity to insist that it follow those rules. Beneath the profusion of (often confused) statements. The problem is to define what. that doesn’t mean the only solution is directly to overthrow it. democracy has to be reinvented. The liberal-pragmatic view is that problems can be solved gradually. the ‘much more’ consists in. second. Just because the underlying cause of the protests is global capitalism. while feasible and legitimate.and their own corrupt and inefficient state. ＊ Say a revolt starts with a demand for justice perhaps in the form of a call for a particular law to be repealed. while thoroughly realistic. Such demands. so forget about anti-imperialist struggle. This inconsistency opens up a space for political intervention: wherever the global capitalist system is forced to violate its own rules. an awareness that the institutionalised form of representative multi-party democracy is not equipped to fight capitalist excess. and so on. John Caputo argued along these lines in After the Death of God (2007): . Obama’s proposal for universal healthcare was such a case. They all deal with a specific combination of at least two issues. Nor is it viable to pursue the pragmatic alternative.e. the other politico-ideological (from the demand for democracy to the demand that conventional multi-party democracy be overthrown). they become aware that much more than meeting their initial demand would be needed to bring about true justice. That ignores the fact that global capitalism is necessarily inconsistent: market freedom goes hand in hand with US support for its own farmers. the movement had two basic features: first. that Iranians are protesting against corruption and religious fundamentalism. A political movement begins with an idea. but an essential redefinition – because the idea itself becomes part of the process: it becomes overdetermined. To demand consistency at strategically selected points where the system cannot afford to be consistent is to put pressure on the entire system. which is to deal with individual problems and wait for a radical transformation. None of these protests can be reduced to a single issue. preaching democracy goes hand in hand with supporting Saudi Arabia. which is why reactions to it were so violent. but in time the idea undergoes a profound transformation – not just a tactical accommodation. not wait for the collapse of the global capitalist order’. strike at the core of hegemonic ideology and imply much more radical change.
why not stay there? The problem is the underlying premise that it’s possible to achieve all that within global capitalism in its present form. effectively restricting campaign financing. and this accounts for their strength: they fight for (‘normal’. What if the malfunctionings of capitalism listed by Caputo aren’t merely contingent perturbations but structural necessities? What if Caputo’s dream is a dream of a universal capitalist order without its symptoms. When the revolt succeeds in its initial goal. There are situations in which to insist on the principal antagonism means to miss the opportunity to strike a significant blow in the struggle. enfranchising all voters. But we are soon faced with more difficult choices. etc. our humiliation. the key question is: how will our engagement in it or disengagement from it affect other struggles? The general rule is that when a revolt against an oppressive half-democratic regime begins.I would be perfectly happy if the far-left politicians in the United States were able to reform the system by providing universal healthcare. effectively redistributing wealth more equitably with a revised IRS code. we come to realise that what is really bothering us (our lack of freedom. so that we are forced to recognise that . and effecting a multilateral foreign policy that would integrate American power within the international community. intervene upon capitalism by means of serious and far-reaching reforms … If after doing all that Badiou and Žižek complained that some Monster called Capitalism still stalks us. The problem here is not Caputo’s conclusion: if one could achieve all that within capitalism. against corruption etc. parliamentary) democracy against authoritarian regimes. Here there is no shame in recalling the Maoist distinction between principal and secondary antagonisms. poor prospects) persists in a new guise.e. for the welfare state against neoliberalism. without the critical points at which its ‘repressed truth’ shows itself? Today’s protests and revolts are sustained by the combination of overlapping demands. and for new forms of democracy that reach beyond multi-party rituals. When we join a specific struggle. i. but also false gradualism (‘right now we should fight against military dictatorship and for basic democracy. as with the Middle East in 2011.. especially when directed at immigrants and refugees. all other fights are secondary’). against corruption in politics and business (industrial pollution of the environment etc). all dreams of socialism should be put aside for now’). I would be inclined to greet that Monster with a yawn. against racism and sexism. between those that matter most in the end and those that dominate now. it is easy to mobilise large crowds with slogans – for democracy. They also question the global capitalist system as such and try to keep alive the idea of a society beyond capitalism. Only a politics that fully takes into account the complexity of overdetermination deserves to be called a strategy. treating migrant workers humanely. Two traps are to be avoided here: false radicalism (‘what really matters is the abolition of liberal-parliamentary capitalism. corruption.
or if we come up short in any way. how to move beyond Mandela without becoming Mugabe. But what if each Turkey generates and contains its own Greece. what we first took as a failure fully to apply a noble principle (democratic freedom) is in fact a failure inherent in the principle itself. that it comes at a price. they say. they may seem to be entirely different: Greece is trapped in the ruinous politics of austerity. exciting wave of change is over.there was a flaw in the goal itself. In these parts They have come to the conclusion that God Requiring a heaven and a hell. They tell us that democratic freedom brings its own responsibilities. didn’t need to Plan two establishments but Just the one: heaven. that it is immature to expect too much from democracy. . Greece and Turkey. It Serves the unprosperous. in the Philippines after the fall of Marcos. In a more directly political sense. The village of Hollywood was planned according to the notion People in these parts have of heaven. how to take the next step without succumbing to the ‘totalitarian’ temptation. the US has consistently pursued a strategy of damage control in its foreign policy by re-channelling popular uprisings into acceptable parliamentary-capitalist forms: in South Africa after apartheid. This may mean coming to see that democracy can itself be a form of un-freedom. What would this mean in a concrete case? Let’s compare two neighbouring countries. In a free society. in Indonesia after Suharto etc. while Turkey is enjoying an economic boom and is emerging as a new regional superpower. In short. unsuccessful As hell. At first glance. we have no one to blame but ourselves. we must behave as capitalists investing in our own lives: if we fail to make the necessary sacrifices. This is where politics proper begins: the question is how to push further once the first. its own islands of misery? As Brecht put it in his ‘Hollywood Elegies’. or that we must demand more than merely political democracy: social and economic life must be democratised too. Representatives of the ruling ideology roll out their entire arsenal to prevent us from reaching this radical conclusion. This realisation – that failure may be inherent in the principle we’re fighting for – is a big step in a political education.
playgrounds of the rich that are dependent on conditions of near-slavery for immigrant workers. to reject ‘patriotic’ temptations.This describes today’s ‘global village’ rather well: just apply it to Qatar or Dubai. Greek and Turkish protesters are engaged in the same struggle. A closer look reveals underlying similarities between Turkey and Greece: privatisation. The true path would be to co-ordinate the two struggles. to leave behind the two countries’ historical enmity and to seek grounds for solidarity. the enclosure of public space. . the rise of authoritarian politics. the dismantling of social services. At an elementary level. The future of the protests may depend on it.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?