Can We Get Past the Whiplash of War, Plutocracy and Extremism of Our Times to Claim a Better Future?
ISIS is on the march, being bombed by everyone it seems, to no avail. Saudi Arabia keeps bombing Yemen as al-Qaeda rushes into some of Yemen’s southern towns. According to the World Bank, 700 million people live in poverty, with large numbers in Africa and Asia. Half the world’s people live on less than $2 per day. A Gallup study showed that a third of the world’s people are either unemployed or dissatisfied with their jobs. There are floods in Chennai and the coastline of the Marshall Islands is in retreat. The “leaders” of the world eat canapÃ©s and sip champagne in France, while bombs fall and empty plates rattle. What world is it that the leaders claim to lead?
We feel run aground by the crises of our days. Empiricism is the level of the moment; trying to analyze each crisis as it comes, trying to fight against the capitalist media’s narrative. Paralysis and despondency strike as we find it impossible to respond to the sheer density of crises. One cannot keep up with the news, let alone analysis of what is going on. There is a kind of information whiplash, minds reeling from one tragedy to another. Before you can make sense of bomb blasts in Beirut and Baghdad, there is Paris, and then there is Bamako. Simplistic binaries — good guys/bad guys — sneak in when it becomes hard to manage the volume of information. Context vanishes, complexity is banished.
But we do not live in the ruins of history. Time has not ended. Dreams, however inchoate, interrupt the sleep of everyday life. We are in New York City. Here, the Occupy movement made its own interruption at the same time as Tunisians and Egyptians took their squares. Unprepared for political action, people went to the streets. They knew that they wanted something else. Time seemed truncated for them. They had a past – yes, that is called history and however badly it is configured it nonetheless cannot be denied that it has occurred. They have a present – yes, it is where we live our lives. But they did not have a future. What we experience is an endless present – nothing of significance changes, little gets better, the torments are our constant companions. Occupy, like Tahrir and the Caracazo, wanted a future. But that was denied it. Armies and the police are the Pretorian guard of the present. They are sent out to bash heads and stuff dreams back into them.
Occupy and Tahrir were asked, what are your demands? Do you have demands? Take us to your leader! The answers were unclear. We know what we are against: the 1%, Mubarak, this and that. But we are not always so clear on what we are for. These are not merely demands, but dreams. What is our horizon? We fear its articulation. We dare not utter the fullness our imagination. What collective dream can we describe? What is the word that stands in for the horizon we aspire to build? Do we have the confidence to say that we want to force the rich to part with their wealth and to use that hoarded capital for social purposes? Are we too exhausted to defend the great dream of freedom, to argue for instance that in the future real wealth will not be the ephemeral goods that you own, but free time for leisure, or that in the future our social needs will be taken care of so that we are not plunged into the depression of wage slavery. The lack of a horizon makes us see only the present, feel only the great ruin of our time.
How to build confidence in the horizon? Small groups of revolutionaries toil in this country and that country to build the confidence of the masses of people. I am not a romantic. I do not believe that the contradictions of history will lift the people to deliver history to its best side. Demons lurk in the shadows. There are always our enemies, eager to poison desperation and make it choose hate over hope. Rosa Luxemburg said that the choice posed to our system is between socialism and barbarism. Barbarism is this story’s natural conclusion. It is up to the small groups of revolutionaries to tear history away from that destination. But are we—these small groups—confident in the strength of our arms?
From the 19th century, one of the great uses of internationalism was to know that in other places, far from our own work, struggle militants such as ourselves toward similar goals. Internationalism was the neurological system for socialist confidence. It is what gave militants the conviction that they were on the right path. They had a theory of the present and a sense of the future. They were linked to revolutionaries elsewhere, and this linkage allowed them to believe in the importance of their work. Internationalism gave revolutionaries assurance that their hopes for humankind were not merely illusionary, but had a concrete manifestation in their linkages.
Over the past few decades, these ties have withered. The collapse of the USSR was traumatic, even for those who were strongly critical of it. The other pole vanished. History was to have ended. We had lost. What linkages remained came in the NGO sector and in transnational mobilization against this or that horrible agenda of the G7. This was solidarity in the moment, against making the present unbearable. The slogan on the wall said another world is possible, but few believed it. What they meant to say is that let this world not be made worse. They did not have the capacity to dream of a common future, one that would break with the endless present.
Our new internationalism, which links the left in Brazil to India, from South Africa to the North America, that links the people of Palestine to China, should allow us to reclaim the heritage of the future, which we will build in our concrete, local struggles, but also in our global ambitions. We have come to understand how to build working-class power in our locations despite the adverse social conditions. Trade unions are hard to build at the workplace? OK, so we’ll build working-class organizations in the neighbourhoods. Informal work has made workers no longer experience themselves as workers? OK, so we’ll build working-class power through dignity struggles against sexism, racism, caste hierarchies and so on. Our movements are creative. We are alive to the possibilities of tomorrow.
The sedimentary nature of power fears the chaos of protest. What the plutocrats know as stability, the middle class knows as convenience. Struggle is unstable and inconvenient. It pushes here and there, seeking ruptures in the fabric of the present. Success is not guaranteed. What is clear, however, is that the time of the present, of the possible has become irrelevant to millions of people. They are seeking the time of the future, of the impossible: our work is a stepping-stone to that time of the future.