Læsetid: 11 min.

The violent silence of a new beginning

The violent silence of a new beginning
25. oktober 2011

What to do after the Wall Street occupation, when the protests which started far away (Middle East, Greece, Spain, UK) reached the center, and are now, reinforced, rolling back around the world? One of the great dangers the protesters are facing is that they will fall in love with themselves, with the nice time they are having in the “occupied” places. In a San Francisco echo of the Wall Street occupation on Sunday October 16 2011, a guy addressed the crowd with an invitation to participate in it as if it is a happening in the hippy style of the 1960s: »They are asking us what is our program. We have no program. We are here to have a good time.«

Carnivals come cheap – the true test of their worth is what remains the day after, how our normal daily life will be changed. The protesters should fall in love with hard and patient work – they are the beginning, not the end, so their basic message is: the taboo is broken, we do not leave in the best possible world, we are allowed, obliged even, to think about alternatives. In a kind of Hegelian triad, the Western Left has come full circle: after abandoning the so-called »class struggle essentialism« for the plurality of anti-racist, feminist, etc., struggles, »capitalism« is now clearly re-emerging as the name of THE problem. So the first lesson to be taken is: do not blame people and their attitudes.

The problem is not corruption or greed, the problem is the system that pushes you to be corrupt. The solution is not “Main street, not Wall street,” but to change the system where main street cannot function without Wall street.

There is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions – questions not about what we do not want, but about what we DO want. What social organization can replace the existing capitalism? What type of new leaders we need? What organs, including those of control and repression? The XXth century alternatives obviously did not work.

While it is thrilling to enjoy the pleasures of the “horizontal organization” of protesting crowds with egalitarian solidarity and open-ended free debates, we should also bear in mind what Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote: »Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.« This holds also for politics in times of uncertainty: the open-ended drebates will have to coalesce not only in some new Master-Signifiers, but also in concrete answers to the old Leninist question «What is to be done?«.

The direct conservative attacks are easy to answer. Are the protests un-American? When conservative fundamentalists claim that America is a Christian nation, one should remember what Christianity is: the Holy Spirit, the free egalitarian community of believers united by love. It is the protesters who are the Holy Spirit, while on Wall Street pagans worship false idols.

Are the protesters violent? True, their very language may appear violent (occupation, and so on), but they are violent only in the sense in which Mahathma Gandhi was violent. They are violent because they want to put a stop on the way things go – but what is this violence compared to the violence needed to sustain the smooth functioning of the global capitalist system?

They are called losers – but are the true losers not there on the Wall Street, and were they not bailed out by hundreds of billions of our money? They are called socialists – but in the US, there already is socialism for the rich. They are accused of not respecting private property – but the Wall Street speculations that led to the crash of 2008 erased more hard-earned private property than if the protesters were to be destroying it night and day – just think of thousands of homes foreclosed.

They are not Communists, if Communism means the system which deservedly collapsed in 1990 – and remember that Communists who are still in power run today the most ruthless capitalism (in China).

The success of Chinese Communist-run capitalism is an ominous sign that the marriage between capitalism and democracy is approaching a divorce. The only sense in which they are Communists is that they care for the commons – the commons of nature, of knowledge – which are threatened by the system. They are dismissed as dreamers, but the true dreamers are those who think that things can go on indefinitely they way they are, just with some cosmetic changes.

They are not dreamers, they are the awakening from a dream which is turning into a nightmare. They are not destroying anything, they are reacting to how the system is gradually destroying itself. We all know the classic scene from cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice, but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. What the protesters are doing is just reminding those in power to look down.

This is the easy part. The protesters should beware not only of enemies, but also of false friends who pretend to support them, but are already working hard to dilute the protest. In the same way we get coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice-cream without fat, those in power will try to make the protests into a harmless moralistic gesture. In boxing, to »clinch« means to hold the opponent's body with one or both arms in order to prevent or hinder punches.

Bill Clinton’s reaction to the Wall Street protests is a perfect case of political clinching; Clinton thinks that the protests are "on balance...a positive thing," but he is worried about the nebulousness of the cause: "They need to be for something specific, and not just against something because if you're just against something, someone else will fill the vacuum you create," he said. Clinton suggested the protesters get behind President Obama's jobs plan, which he claimed would create "a couple million jobs in the next year and a half."

What one should resist at this stage is precisely such a quick translation of the energy of the protest into a set of »concrete« pragmatic demands. Yes, the protests did create a vacuum - a vacuum in the field of hegemonic ideology, and time is needed to fill this vacuum in a proper way, since it is a pregnant vacuum, an opening for the truly New. The reason protesters went out is that they had enough of the world where to recycle your Coke cans, to give a couple of dollars for charity, or to buy Starbucks cappuccino where 1% goes for the Third World troubles is enough to make them feel good. After outsourcing work and torture, after the marriage agencies started to outsource even our dating, they saw that for a long time they were allowing their political engagements also to be outsourced – and they want them back.

The art of politics is also to insist on a particular demand which, while thoroughly »realist,« disturbs the very core of the hegemonic ideology, i.e., which, while definitely feasible and legitimate, is de facto impossible (universal healthcare in the US was such a case). In the aftermath of the Wall Street protests, we should definitely mobilize people on such demands – however, it is no less important to simultaneously remain subtracted from the pragmatic field of negotiations and »realist« proposals. What one should always bear in mind is that any debate here and now necessarily remains a debate on enemy's turf: time is needed to deploy the new content. All we say now can be taken (recuperated) from us - everything except our silence. This silence, this rejection of dialogue, of all forms of clinching, is our »terror,« ominous and threatening as it should be.

Wall Street protests are a beginning, and one has to begin like that, with a formal gesture of rejection which is more important than positive content – only such a gesture opens up the space for a new content. So we should not be terrorized by the perennial question: »But what do they want?« Remember that this is the archetypal question addressed by a male master to a hysterical woman: »All your whining and complaining – do you know at all what you really want?« In the psychoanalytic sense, the protests effectively are hysterical act, provoking the master, undermining his authority, and the question »But what do you want?« aims precisely to preclude the true answer – its point is: »Tell it in my terms or shut up!«

This, of course, does not mean that the protesters should be pampered and flattered – today, if ever, intellectuals should combine the full support of the protesters with a non-patronizing cold analytic distance, beginning with the probe into the protesters' self-designation as 99% against the greedy 1%: how many of the 99% are ready to accept the protesters as their voice, and to what extent? One should avoid the temptation of the narcissism of the lost Cause, of admiring the sublime beauty of uprisings doomed to fail. In today's Left, the problem of »determinate negation« returns with a vengeance: what new positive order should replace the old one the day after, when the sublime enthusiasm of the uprising is over?

If we take a closer look at the well-known manifest of the Spanish indignados (the angry ones), we are in for some surprise. The first thing that strikes the eye is the pointedly apolitical tone: »Some of us consider ourselves progressive, others conservative. Some of us are believers, some not. Some of us have clearly defined ideologies, others are apolitical, but we are all concerned and angry about the political, economic, and social outlook which we see around us: corruption among politicians, businessmen, bankers, leaving us helpless, without a voice.”

They voice their protest on behalf of the “inalienable truths that we should abide by in our society: the right to housing, employment, culture, health, education, political participation, free personal development, and consumer rights for a healthy and happy life.” Rejecting violence, they call for an “ethical revolution. Instead of placing money above human beings, we shall put it back to our service.

We are people, not products. I am not a product of what I buy, why I buy and who I buy from.” Who will be the agent of this revolution? While the entire political class, Right and Left, is dismissed as corrupted and controlled by the lust for power, the manifest nonetheless consists of a series of demands addressed at – whom? Not the people themselves: the indignados do not (yet) claim that no one will do it for them, that (to paraphrase Gandhi) they themselves have to be the change they want to see. It seems that Lacan’s all too easy and dismissive remark on the 1968 protesters found its target in the indignados: "As revolutionaries, you are hysterics who demand a new master. You will get one."

Who, then, does know? Faced with the demands of the protesters, intellectuals are definitely not in the position of the subjects supposed to know: they cannot operationalize these demands, to translate them into proposals for precise and detailed realistic measures. With the fall of the XXth century Communism, they forever forfeited the role of the vanguard which knows the laws of history and can guide the innocents along its path.

People, however, also don't know it – »people« as a new figure of the Subject Supposed to Know is a myth of the Party which claims to act on its behalf, from Mao’s guideline to “learn from the farmers” up to Heidegger’s famous appeal to his old farmer friend in his short text “Why Do We Stay in the Provinces?” from 1934, a month after he resigned as the dean of the Freiburg University:

“Recently I got a second invitation to teach at the University of Berlin. On that occasion I left Freiburg and withdrew to the cabin. I listened to what the mountains and the forest and the farmlands were saying, and I went to see an old friend of mine, a 75-year old farmer. He had read about the call to Berlin in the newspapers. What would he say? Slowly he fixed the sure gaze of his clear eyes on mine, and keeping his mouth tightly shut, he thoughtfully put his faithful hand on my shoulder. Ever so slightly he shook his head. That meant: absolutely no!”

One can only imagine what the old farmer was really thinking – in all probability, he knew which answer Heidegger wanted from him and politely provided it. No wisdom of ordinary men will tell the protesters warum bleiben wir in Wall Street. There is no Subject who knows, neither intellectuals nor ordinary people are it. So is this not a deadlock: a blind man leading a blind man, or, more precisely, each of them presupposing the other is not blind?

No, because their respective ignorance is not symmetrical: it is the people who have the answers, they just don't know the questions to which they have (or, rather, are) the answer. John Berger wrote about the »multitudes« of those who found themselves on the wrong side of the Wall (which divides those who are in from those who are out):

»The multitudes have answers to questions which have not yet been posed, and they have the capacity to outlive the walls.

The questions are not yet asked because to do so requires words and concepts which ring true, and those currently being used to name events have been rendered meaningless: Democracy, Liberty, Productivity, etc.

With new concepts the questions will soon be posed, for history involves precisely such a process of questioning. Soon? Within a generation.«

Claude Levi-Strauss wrote that the prohibition of incest is not a question, an enigma, but an answer to a question that we do not know. We should treat the demands of the Wall Street protests in a similar way: intellectuals should not primarily take them as demands, questions, for which they should produce clear answers, programs about what to do. They are answers, and intellectuals should propose questions to which they are answers.

The situation is like that of psychoanalysis, where the patient knows the answer (his symptoms are such answers) but doesn't know to what they are answers, and the analyst has to formulate a question. Only through such a patient work a program will emerge.

Copyright Slavoj Zizek and Information

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