When the gods dance...

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Revolution at the armchair: on books and barricades

 26 Jan 2013 08:06 PM PST

What role for revolutionary theory and practice? In this debate, Matan Kaminer takes ROAR founder Jerome to task for resurrecting obsolete prejudices.

Matan Kaminer criticizes ROAR founder Jerome Roos for some of the conclusions he draws in his latest piece on the Egyptian revolution, relating especially to the importance of theory in the revolutionary process. Jerome responds to Matan’s criticism below. Please feel free to share your thoughts!


Matan Kaminer: “Revolution at the Armchair — a Response to Jerome Roos”

In a piece celebrating the spirit and determination of the Egyptian revolutionaries, Jerome has decided to incorporate some harsh criticism of Marx and his legacy, as expressed in the contemporary work of people working in the Marxian tradition. Jerome does not mince his words: Marx is “fat” and “old” (crimes against the people if there ever were any), Slavoj Žižek a narcissist and “thinker” (scare quotes in the original), Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara an “armchair socialist”. All and sundry are dismissed for forcing a stale “ideational legacy” on a revolutionary process from which they are, presumably, entirely disconnected.

These accusations seem to be based on a willful misreading, or in the case of Marx himself, no reading at all, as the only citation of him is to an apocryphal remark “allegedly” made to Engels. Žižek does not fare much better; he is accused of condemning the Egyptian Revolution to failure, where he has done no such thing. In the piece linked to, the closest he comes to such an assertion is the following passage, which describes the experience of 2012:

What are we to do in such depressive times when dreams seem to fade away? Is the only choice we have the one between nostalgic-narcissistic remembrance of the sublime enthusiastic moments, and the cynically-realist explanation of why the attempts to really change the situation had to fail? … The first thing to state is that the subterranean work of dissatisfaction is going on: rage is accumulating and a new wave of revolts will follow. The weird and unnatural relative calm of the Spring of 2012 is more and more perforated by the growing subterranean tensions announcing new explosions; what makes the situation so ominous is the all-pervasive sense of blockage: there no clear way out, the ruling elite is clearly losing its ability to rule.

Clearly Žižek is in no way arguing that 2011 was a failure or making some abstruse, speculative point; he is summing up the mood of the year in what appears to me a perspicacious fashion. His refusal of both “nostalgic-narcissistic remembrance” and “cynically-realist explanation” is a practical, political injunction geared at rescuing what is valuable and enduring in the experience of 2011, while recognizing that in most places the tide has ebbed. Nowhere does he rule out the kind of resurgence we are now witnessing in Egypt.

The attack on Sunkara is in a similar vein. The closest thing I could find to the putative intellectualist defeatism in the op-ed linked to is a recognition that a survey of the political landscape in America, despite Occupy’s emergence in 2011, is bleak. The labor movement has shown some signs of life, especially among public sector workers combating austerity, but these are at best rearguard, defensive struggles. Unionization rates continue to decline, and apathy, not revolutionary fervor, reigns. I am no expert on the USA, but after a residence of five months in the Midwest, Sunkara’s summary rings rather true to me. Jerome is entitled to differ, of course, but nowhere does he make an argument to that effect.

What this tirade in fact amounts to is a rehashing of the crusty feud between Marxists and anarchists. Marxists once stereotyped anarchists as feeble-minded, hot-headed provocateurs and anarchists returned the favor by caricaturing Marxists as disconnected, mystically inclined intellectualists more interested in scholastic nitpicking than in actual revolution. Thankfully, the twentieth century is over and this ongoing spat is irrelevant. People working within the Marxian tradition recognize that the theory and practice of revolutionary politics must incorporate resistance to hierarchy of all kinds if we are not to repeat the dire disasters of Stalinism. Activists inspired by the anarchist lineage now realize the practical importance of theorization in such supposedly obscure fields as political economy and the philosophy of the subject.

We must, all of us, reject the dichotomy between thought and action (admittedly the scion of a distorted Marxism). Thought is a social, material process, embodied in such things as books and blogs. As we all know, much work and much exploitation is carried out today at the “armchair” – though more often it is an Ikea Klemens rather than an ornamental Louis XV. It is likewise with revolutionary practice – we are building the common space we need to fight from with our fingertips as well as our feet. We have time to write and time to occupy, time to talk and time to pull up barricades. What we do not have time for is resurrecting obsolete, wrong-headed prejudices.

Matan Kaminer has been active in the conscientious objection movement, in migrant solidarity work and in municipal and student politics in Israel. He is currently a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Michigan.


Jerome Roos: “Armchair at the Revolution — a Reply to Matan Kaminer”

In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.

~ Albert Einstein

I am glad my polemic on the Egyptian revolution stirred the still waters of Leftist self-criticism enough to elicit this well-written response from Matan. Before I start, allow me to remark that my old housemate Noa (who introduced me to Matan in Jaffa early last year) can attest to the long nights I spent struggling with all three dreadfully written tomes of Marx’s Capital. While I undoubtedly learned a lot about the internal contradictions of capital accumulation, I am proud to — just like Matan — have picked up most of my activist lessons in the streets,  squares and squats, and not in some dusty publication from the 19th century. So now that Matan has had the opportunity to accuse me of being an anarchist who hasn’t read his Marx, I am glad to de-polemicize my own speech (although I will probably fail at that effort), and focus on the real issues at stake here (I promise I’ll try to be more serious at that).

While I basically agree with Matan’s conclusions on the inseparability of theory and practice, our core disagreement seems to revolve around their relative importance. For Matan, my polemic reinforces the dichotomy between the two, thereby “resurrecting obsolete, wrong-headed prejudices.” It seems like a slightly awkward critique to level at someone who in two years wrote over 300.000 words of theoretical reflections on a movement in which he actively participated from the very start (while simultaneously trying to write a 100.000-word PhD thesis on the structural power of capital), but as a Dutch disclaimer for financial investment commercials rightly underscores, “past performance is no guarantee for future gains,” so I will write once more. Let me be clear: I agitate not against those who theorize, but against those who over-analyze. Surely, I was deliberately being polemic — and for that Matan is right to fire back in indignation. But still, Matan’s criticism of my piece appears to hinge entirely on my accusation of Marx being a fatty (poor old Karl!), and the two links I provided to armchair socialist Bhaskar Sunkara and narcissistic thinker Slavoj Žižek.

My critique of Sunkara’s was straightforward: I just don’t understand why anyone claiming to be a revolutionary socialist would use the opportunity of a Guardian publication on January 25th to extol the ideational legacy of a man who died 130 years ago. Of course Marx’ ideas are still relevant; to anyone with at least the mildest revolutionary inkling that observation constitutes as much as a self-evidence. So why not use the occasion of the Tahrir anniversary to celebrate the legacy of the hundreds of Egyptians who gave their lives trying to bring about a revolution in our lifetimes? Last time I checked, it was terribly quiet at Highgate Cemetery. Tahrir Square, however, remains embellished in the flames of revolutionary rage. To understand why, we should listen to the parish; not idolize the priest.

My frustration with Sunkara arises from the fact that he pretends to know a lot about things he appears to have very little experience with. Theorizing without practical experience is ultimately just as dangerous as acting without theoretical understanding. Sunkara, for one, always preferred his books over the barricades. As he just told the bourgeois New York Times in a flattering interview, he “traces his politics less to experience than to reading.” Critical question: since when did the Jacobins relegate themselves to the status of a reading club? I guess the haunting legacy of the Reign of Terror had something to do with it? Perhaps retreating to the quiet comfort of theorizing helped them forget about the bloody lessons of their own history? Well, at least one thing we have to praise Sunkara for is that he is honest in his assessment of the current state of the Left. In his editorial accompanying the issue Praxis of Jacobin Magazine, he readily admitted that, “So far, the creative tactics and the grunt work of coalition building in Occupy have come largely from anarchists, not the socialist left.”

As for the critique of Žižek, let me admit my one big mistake: I was too lazy to find the proper quotes and articles to accompany my frustration with his seemingly endless and utterly vacuous theoretical masturbation. I remembered having read about Žižek’s defense of theory at the expense of practice, but since the man is a master at contradicting his own statements I couldn’t quite remember where I had read it. Now that Matan (rightfully) forces me to be a bit more academic in my referencing, let me cite and link to proper references (I think I might start failing even more dramatically in my attempt to de-polemicize here):

  1. Žižek as “narcissistic intellectual”, hoping to enlighten the unconscious masses through his “revolutionary” writings, apparently believes that “humanity is okay, but 99% of people are stupid idiots.” I guess that makes him part of the 1%. While we stupid idiots try to organize a revolution from below, we look forward to reading the cover description of his next 900-page book.
  2. Žižek as “depressed pessimist”, who gave up on the Egyptian revolution the moment he realized it was not going to unleash some epic singular Event of Biblical proportions, purging humanity from 300 years of capitalist sins: “Unfortunately, the Egyptian summer of 2011 will be remembered as marking theend of revolution, a time when its emancipatory potential was suffocated.” Yes, Slavoj — this was the end of the revolution on your TV screen. On the ground, it was the beginning of an endless struggle in which thousands of activists continue to risk their lives every single day to realize the dreams of their martyred comrades.
  3. Žižek as “disconnected theorist”, who scorns action not just as irrelevant, but as dangerous, urging us not to act, and just to think
Indeed, insofar as we should act, Žižek urges us to be very careful and follow the example not of the Egyptian revolutionaries, but of heroic revolutionary vanguards, like Barack Obama, whose efforts to pass universal healthcare constitute a great example of anti-capitalist contestation (let’s just conveniently forget about the fact that Obamacare basically stripped away hundreds of billions of dollars from hospitals and donated them as profits to Big Pharma and Wall Street insurance companies).

On the latter point, it may be worth citing Žižek in full:

My advice would be — because I don’t have simple answers — two things: precisely to start thinking. Don’t get caught into this pseudo-activist pressure. ‘Do something. Let’s do it, and so on.’ So, no, the time is to think. I even provoked some of the leftist friends when I told them that if the famous Marxist formula was, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the time is to change it” . . . thesis 11 . . . , that maybe today we should say, “In the twentieth century, we maybe tried to change the world too quickly. The time is to interpret it again, to start thinking.”

So let’s be clear on this: just because Žižek doesn’t have any simple answers, all of usshould stop acting and start thinking? Just because Marx got it all lopsided in the twentieth century — and revolution through the party-state (predictably) failed — all of us should sit on our hands and wait for someone like Žižek to come up with the new theoretical models of the twenty-first? Just because past revolutionary vanguards “tried to change the world too quickly” — unleashing revolutionary terror from Robbespierre (Žižek’s favorite historical figure); to Stalin (whose murderous face lightens up Žižek’sbedside altar); to Mao (whose Cultural Revolution was praised by Žižek and Badiou as “the last truly great revolutionary explosion of the twentieth century”) — the rest of us should hold back and theorize while the Giant Vampire Squid of global capitalism sucks the last remaining blood out of humanity and the planet?

“Ah,” we can hear the old Marxists grumble in the background, “let them eat books!”

I applaud those like Matan who reflect upon their own actions and act upon their own reflections. There is a reason that one of the first things that arose at Occupy Wall Street was a library — and there is a reason that the non-violent tactics of the so-called ‘Book Bloc‘, inspired by Italian activists who started confronting riot police with shields resembling books, has gone viral around the globe. But that said, Marx remains a dead old fatty and Žižek is still little more than a clever comedian spouting pop-philosophy to the mainstream media. In my spare time, I greatly enjoyed reading about half a dozen of his books, and I’m sure that — together with his favorite armchair and vanguardist vanities — they will make for a great bonfire over at the barricades.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and contribute to the debate!

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