The Inescapable Conundrum of a Revolutionary: Action, Research Time, 07/02/2014

You could say this is an idea where it all comes together. Or where it all falls apart. Zizek returns to this notion at various points throughout Living in the End Times, throughout a bunch of his recent web videos, and it’s a fundamental conundrum of the Utopias project. The separation of the ideal — the dream of a perfect society — from the possibility of its realization.

This harkens back to a conversation I had with my friendly antagonist C over the impossibility of a truly balanced market. After the decades of catastrophe that we call the 20th century, no one who is angry at the injustices of capitalism can seriously advocate a return to a state-controlled socialist economy. Any who would are either not serious, or know nothing about the Kafkaesque ridiculousness of living in a society permeated by bureaucratic management, either regarding its corruption or its existential absurdity. 

But for quite a lot of people, the current global arrangement of planetary-scale capitalism is not good enough. The disparity between the rich and poor remains too wide, and in many countries, rigid oligarchical class systems either maintain themselves or are coming into existence. There is an almost instinctual rage in many people when they see so much owned by so few people. 

A lot of the contemporary concepts in radical criticisms of
capitalism, even the populist ones like Naomi Klein,
grow from ideas in Guattari's short solo books of the 1980s.
Yet capitalism remains a brilliant system for being able to include revolution in its very framework. The drive to produce is a drive to overthrow old orders of social life, a process that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call deterritorialization. Literally, the strict strata of a society is swept away and the social ground flattened as some new process of material production renders the old codes and hierarchies of a society obsolete. The nouveau riche destroy an aristocracy precisely because their power grows greater than theirs, and they are not themselves part of a landed aristocracy. 

Zizek and Deleuze both admit that, for all its flaws, capitalism is a liberating form of social organization. It’s the ultimate large-scale deterritorializer, the force that can bring down any tradition or social structure, no matter how ossified it’s become. What’s more, the fluctuation of a global market and its massive capital flows prevents the new structures that develop in the wake of its levelling from ossifying themselves. Changes are always incoming, and you must adapt to them or die (or at least find yourself put out to pasture). 

But that change isn’t necessarily the change you want to see, especially if it’s you working to change the world. If the history of revolution shows us anything, it’s that the utopian dreams tend to fail, replaced with a different kind of power imbalance and oppression. Who is oppressed, and the language and concepts with which they speak, can change. But social stratification always sets in.

Guevara fought for a global communist revolution,
but he could never have foreseen becoming the
global left's most famous brand name.
And the revolutionaries themselves are often the harbingers of a new stratification. The ability to imagine the future and plan for possibilities brings an epistemic dimension to the ontological structure of temporality. Actions based on predictions of the future invalidate those predictions because a prediction can’t include an action that is based on the prediction. Self-reference, even in practical action, creates paradoxes that ruin the consistency in reality required for a consistent plan for action to work as it should. Through all the theoretical argument and historical investigation that the Utopias project will require, this is the ultimate core of my idea.

Zizek paints a final irony for any dream of a revolution early in this book in a brief description that I find hilarious, as I find all propositions that are profoundly true. Even if we do change reality in such a way that it realizes all of our dreams, we will find this new reality haunted by new dreams of a different world. New dreams of a revolution. What we have is never what we want. 

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