Josh Haas's Web Log

So You Say You Want a Revolution

with 3 comments

From Robespierre the Incorruptible, Robespierre the Daemonic:

But The Gleaming Vision and False Consciousness are two of the most crucial tools in the Revolutionary’s toolbox. I think that the tepid nature of much current Leftist writing (when it isn’t just disappearing entirely into theory) owes to the lack of a forceful (coercively so) positive future vision, and the complementary near-myopic focus on critique. …

Without a Gleaming Vision, and the accusations of False Consciousness to level at those who reject the Gleaming Vision, critique only serves the purpose of establishing internal purity tests, one-upping dialogic opponents, and getting tenure or magazine posts. Allusions to Gleaming Visions remain steadfastly vague, whether you are reading Slavoj Zizek, Naomi Klein, Silvia Federici, or Antonio Negri. While they are hectoring in their criticism of capitalism’s blatant faults, they are fuzzy on the details of its successor–and thus the need for revolution rather than reform is not clear. Thomas Piketty’s surprisingly modest solutions in Capital in the 21st Century–a global wealth tax, but that’s about it–drastically separate him from the radical crowd. In The Nation, Timothy Shenk half-heartedly carps about Piketty’s incrementalism while making only the fuzziest motions at “a much richer set of possibilities” and “a more promising alternative” for the future. He doesn’t bother to say what they might be. That won’t cut it.


This is the Occupy Wall Street circumstance: something is wrong, we don’t know how to fix it.

So young intellectuals are reading Marx again. See for example Jacobin magazine, a modern, web-savvy publication on the rise. Wherein you can find articles that use phrases like “class struggle” and “bourgeoisie” with a straight face.

I’m a technologist, so I don’t believe “history repeats itself” and “there are no new things under the sun”. When I see people grappling to deal with the unprecedented challenges of a globalizing, environmentally-on-the-brink, internet-connected, corporatized, consumerism-run-amok world via reference to concepts whose originators are all dead, I feel like I’m watching NASA engineers try to build a rocket out of steam engines.

Yes: the problems are systemic. Yes: the dominant norms reinforce the status quo and perpetuate injustice. No: we can’t understand or solve these problems with tools that come from an era where “labor” meant “factory worker”.

Knowing one’s history is important (as the post whose quote I opened with demonstrates). But so is knowing when not to fight the last war. To be specific, here are some frameworks for seeing history that I would like to see retired:

-Left vs Right
-Reform vs Revolution
-Libertarian vs Socialist
-Capital vs Labor
-Proletariat vs Bourgeoisie
-Solidarity vs Individualism

In each case, the categories no longer map to real cleavages in the world. They’re world maps with the borders drawn in the wrong places. They’re the wrong dimensions along which to choose sides and take stands, regardless of which side you’re predisposed to.

I don’t know what the right lines to draw are. We probably won’t really know until we’re completely able to un-see the old ones. But, for the sake of getting started, here’s a few ideas:

-Creator vs Consumer
-Creator vs Capturer
-Mobile vs Immobile
-Giver vs Taker
-Scalable vs Unscalable
-Sustainable vs Unsustainable
-Connected vs Disconnected
-Violence vs Relationships

You can’t fight for labor, because labor doesn’t exist. But you can fight to help the disconnected and disenfranchised, the consumers, the immobile stuck in decaying, unsustainable systems.

You can’t have a revolution because there’s nothing to overthrow; you can’t reform because we don’t yet know what the form is. But you can be vulnerable and build relationships, so that the ongoing change isn’t violent.

There’s a lot of work to do, we just need to give it the right name first.

Edit: I wrote a follow-up post here.

Written by jphaas

May 20th, 2014 at 5:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

  • Josh

    If you interpret labor as those who work for their living, and capital as those who own the means of production and live off of their accumulated or inherited earnings and the surplus created by others working for wages, then labor and capital still exist in nearly precisely the same forms as Marx originally posited. There are myriad corporate, economic, legal and social structures that support economic inequality and environmental destruction–each of these is an opportunity to overthrow something very tangible.

    • Josh Haas

      Yes, you can still identify people as labor or capital. Take a list of roles:

      -U. S. Senator
      -School teacher
      -Hedge fund founder
      -Hedge fund middle manager
      -Trust fund kid partying it up
      -Associate at a VC firm
      -Software developer hopping from job to job for whoever pays the most cash
      -Software developer who quits and raises capital for a startup
      -HR employee at a fortune 500 company
      -Political lobbyist
      -Taxi driver
      -Young guy working on an oil rig
      -Judge in federal court

      You could go down that list and mark each role as “labor” or “capital”. But is that categorization the most meaningful division you could make to this list? Does that sorting provide insight into how each of those roles is changing over time? How they should change over time?

      Likewise, I agree that there are structures — corporate, economic, legal, social — that support inequality and environmental destruction. But what does it mean to “overthrow” them? Overthrow implies that someone is in charge, and that you could kick that someone out and put someone else in charge. What does overthrowing Walmart look like? What does overthrowing credentialism look like? What does overthrowing outsourcing look like? What does overthrowing racism look like?

      I’m not trying to be pessimistic about change. I just think the old metaphors for talking about it are stale, and that they need to be re-imagined.

  • chmercier

    Cool and even-handed way of looking at this issue. 🙂