July 8th, 2010

S.C. Hickman

The Idea of Communism - Part IV

     This is what a proper political act would be today: not so much to unleash
     a new movement, as to interrupt the present predominant movement.
            - Slavoj Žižek

According to Zizek history offers us two choices going forward, either we move toward a "capitalism with Asian values" - the socialist path; or, we move toward a Benjamanian project of a Final Revolution one in which history is redeemed by a repetition of all past defeats, a final Reckoning. Then he asks a subtle question: "Or, more radically should we change the field entirely, recognizing that the alternatives just proposed simply represent two sides of the same coin, that is, of the teleological-redemptive notion of history?"

Yet, he questions this very project, this teleological view of history, based upon its evolutionary view of history saying that we should "ruthlessly abandon the prejudice that the linear time of evolution is "on our side," that History is "working for us...", that such an ideology of Progress exists at all. He asks us if we should then except an "open" history one based upon the principle of uncertainty, the dynamic that "at any moment of time, there are multiple possibilities waiting to be realized; once one of them is actualized, others are canceled." No, he says, even this notion of an "open" history is inadequate. Instead we should break out of this gradual evolutionism of linear time and except the possibilities of "contingency" in the order of things. This is closer to a idea that the evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould championed which he termed "punctuated equilibrium".

"Punctuated equilibrium is a theory in evolutionary biology which proposes that some sexually reproducing species will experience little evolutionary change for most of their geological history, remaining in an extended state called stasis. When evolution occurs, it is localized in rare, rapid events of branching speciation, called cladogenesis. Cladogenesis is the process by which species split into two distinct species, rather than one species gradually transforming into another. Thus, "punctuated equilibria is a model for discontinuous tempos of change (in) the process of speciation and the deployment of species in geological time." - read more...

For Zizek this is the Hegelian battle between "contingency and necessity": "...if the catastrophe happens, one can say that its occurrence was decided even before it took place. Destiny and free action... thus go hand in hand: at its most radical, freedom is the freedom to change one's Destiny." Taking the impending truth of environmental catastrophe as an instance of this idea he tells us that we "have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, that the catastrophe will take place, that is our destiny - and then, against the background of this acceptance, mobilize ourselves to perform the act which will change destiny itself and thereby insert a new possibility into the past." He goes on to say:

"What this means is that one should fearlessly rehabilitate the idea of preventative action("the preemptive strike"), much abused in the "war on terror": if we postpone our action until we have full knowledge of the catastrophe, we will have acquired that knowledge only when it is too late."

He affirms something I've always felt that action does not presuppose full knowledge of or certainty about our situation on the "contrary, the true act fills in the gap in our knowledge." He tells us affirmatively that this new insight of a lack at the heart of the "act" undermines even the old concept of "scientific socialism", which, for him, was an illusion anyway, the last vestiges of a Platonism that inculcated within liberal society the idea of the "experts", the wise ones, the Philosophers and Intellectuals, those who could guide us through the maze of difficulties; and, as well, the communist idea of that other big Other, the great Leader, the Stalin, who knows everything: the greatest linguist, economist, philosopher, and so on. Instead this big Other is an idiot just like everyone else. Perhaps, he tells us, this is the lesson to be learned from the Twentieth Century: "to keep Knowledge and the function of the Master as far apart as possible."

A key insight is the old debate between action and passivity. He tells us these oppositions are of little use, instead the "key test of every radical emancipatory movement is, on the contrary, to what extent it transforms on a daily basis the practico-inert instituional practices which gain the upper hand once the fervor of the struggle is over and people return to business as usual." The central dictum is this: "the success of a revolution should not be measured by the sublime awe of its ecstatic moments, but by the changes the big Event leaves at the level of the everyday life, the day after the Insurrection."

The idea of our so called Left Intellectuals has been for a long while to wait for the opportune moment, the kairos, the moment when the revolution can begin, when the appropriate agents will rise up and revolt against the forces of this catastrophe. Instead he says, using an analogy from the Hopi Indians: "We are the ones we've been waiting for." As he says: "waiting for someone else to do the job for us is a way of rationalizing our inactivity." He tells us that this does not mean that we are the "Big Other", the ones predestined by fate(historical necessity) to fulfill the mission of history against the forces that would deign to destroy us; no, it is just the opposite of this: there is no big Other to rely on, no underpinning to the logic of necessity in history to support our cause. Instead it is the big Other, the historical forces of necessity, that are against us and that it is only our - as he terms it, "pure voluntarism", our free decision to act against historical necessity that will help us overcome the dilemmas that face us.

He sees in the many disparate voices rising up within the old communist regimes, and also within the neoliberal West hope for change. As he says, they "are disparate and speak different languages(from US to India, China and Japan, from Latin America to Africa, the Middle East to Western and Easter Europe), but they are not as few as may appear- and the greatest fear of the rulers is that these voices will start to reverberate and reinforce each other in solidarity." He continues:

"Aware that the odds are pulling us towards catastrophe, these actors are ready to act against all odds. Disappointed by twentieth-century Communism, they are ready to "begin from the beginning" and reinvent it on a new basis. Decried by enemies as dangerous utopians, they are the only people who have really awakened from the utopian dream which holds most of us under its sway."