One of the leftover ideas from Raphael Sassower’s dense yet accessible book regards the different ways we try to create new forms of life. Now, this is a major concept in my own political philosophy – the utopian drive to build a new society.
|The Occupation left Wall Street, but it never failed. It's still|
succeeding, because Occupy was the uprising that generated the
ethical energy of anti-oligarchical politics in the 2010s.
Art by Eric Drooker
Sassower, in a few remarks late in chapter one, makes me wonder what I can learn from the unsuccessful cases.
We’ve got to be careful about how we understand success and failure here, though. Remember that success is more complicated than having a succinct list of demands that are fulfilled. That was the complaint I often remember levied at Occupy – how to make change without specific demands.
But we’re talking about a social movement – not an election campaign or a collective bargaining session. So a utopian uprising’s focus must be general as it generates. The uprising is the social movement in embryo – the flurry of energy that focusses people’s thought and minds, and dedicates their lives, to the hard work of actually changing society.
The hard work of transitioning Tunisia to democracy, or overthrowing Bashar Assad. The hard work of restoring social democratic principles to governance in a globalized civilization and economy.
Actual material success in a specific task isn’t necessary to whether a particular utopian impulse is a success. It’s also difficult to tell when such a project is a material success. The Tunisian democratic government, for example, is still only a few years old and still embattled. Is a democratic Tunisia that lasts only a few more years a success?
Let me put this to you, to demonstrate that asking about persistence of an institution isn’t the right question here. Would you consider the Abbasid Caliphate a failure as a pluralistic society because it lasted only 800 years?
The energy of the uprising is not the same as the institutions people create with that energy. What remains when you bracket the material achievements of a social movement is the energy of the movement itself.
|From one of the few long-term successful hippie commune farms.|
The Stephen Gaskin Farm began as a community of radical utopian
Americans, who moved to Tennessee to drop out of industrialized
society. It still exists today as a scientific and political research
centre and charity. Its energy, creativity, and practical intelligence
continues to renew itself for more than four decades now.
A social movement succeeds when the energy of its uprising is sustaining and renewing itself – when people join and contribute to its creative processes, as different contexts to do so appear. There is no point when a social movement has succeeded – that would imply that the movement is finished, and so no longer sustaining itself.
So the death of a social movement is its stoppage. Once people’s creative drive dies, the institutions that movement built immediately ossify and become authoritarian. Their only justification is their existence, which is no justification at all.
Now we have a conception of how to know the success or failure of a social movement on any scale. Success is sustaining its vibrance. Failure is dissipation.
I worked this out Wednesday night as I wrote this post, thinking about Sassower’s example of a failed, small-scale social movement – an experimental agrarian community. These are the farming communes to which frustrated Vancouver office workers retreat when the alienation of their corporate lives becomes too much for them.
That they go is a demonstration of their creative drive to develop a new way of life – a living demonstration that their old lives were obsolete. Not many get too far, though.
The utopian energy of their small group’s social uprising against the constraints and blandness of corporate life isn’t strong enough to overcome even their first challenge. When everyone arrives at the experimental farming commune and they realize that none of them know how to grow food.