Dialogue on trying to live a revolutionary life

With The Bread From One’s Own Mouth.

Barclay Shields: At a time when deeply ideological–and deeply conservative–ways of thinking and behaving have become so entrenched, when mechanisms of social control have become so pervasively solidified, the most truly revolutionary life might not even look political. That would be pretending we are still politicized subjects! In an era such as ours, a truly revolutionary life might not even dabble in what is thought of as radical politics, agitation, or organizing, practices which are themselves, especially in their ideologies (of self-sacrifice, discipline, instrumental calculation, personal profit, etc.) so much a function of contemporary bureaucratic capitalism–but might rather commit to creating a new effectively revolutionary subjectivity that fractures that inert base of contemporary depoliticization in order to once again make political organizing possible. But the specific dilemma I’d like to note is that the bureaucratic, capitalist contamination of contemporary activism and organizing quickly pounce on any freshly radicalized individual, sterilizing everything that is potently, contagiously revolutionary about all fresh converts–namely, naivete, zeal, impatience, intransigence, and that paradoxically fearless joyousness that always follows from properly lucid realizations of hopelessness. I think this explains my dissatisfaction with currently available forms of political activism and, not to mention, incidentally, feelings you and I have shared about the legitimately revolutionary significance of true love–how an absolutely committed, defiant, and public love between even two people could be provocatively disruptive if only all the commonly fascist baggage is successfully resisted.

The Bread From One’s Own Mouth: On this topic I certainly agree with much you have articulate to me, both in this current conversation and in those countless others we’ve entertained previously. On this topic I’ve been particularly occupied with the notion of newness, which appears as a foundational point of contact for Hannah Arendt. According to her, humans have the unique capacity for newness, which she calls “natality.” Not only is natality humanity’s paramount achievement, it constitutes the primary condition for political engagement. This concept seems especially fitting now, not only as we both attempt to construct for ourselves a revolutionary life-looking, but also within this historical moment, in the shadow of Occupy, the Arab Spring, drone strikes, global capitalism. Although Occupy prompted mass action - indeed, in some sense it seemed to bring into being a new polis, or public/political space - it’s time of natality has clearly passed. This became particularly evident, or even inevitable, after the encampments were violently suppressed, which I believe is a major source of its current transition into the more conservative activism that you describe. The political actor no longer feels the vibrancy of this contemporary polis (I say contemporary polis because what was created during Occupy was not only a space for conversation and action, but the whole of human living - that is, alternative medicinal resources, safety, food, education, etc, which is obviously dramatically contrasted from the Greek polis). How does one construct a similar space of freedom when space is continually, relentlessly, ‘pounced on,’ as you put it, either stifled entirely or simply subsumed by the activist industrial complex? Perhaps more importantly to me, how does one construct such a space without leaving people behind - not inclusive in the sense of political representation, but one that incorporates friends, family, those against and with whom I constitute myself? Those who perhaps exist on a different political or social terrain than myself, but on whom my freedom is nonetheless contingent? Like my mother, for instance, a woman whose freedom I value as much as mine own, and yet who has vastly different ideas about life-living? My relationship with you, of course, is of a different matter entirely, as a love that is absolutely committed to revolutionary life - indeed, a love that has become one of the defining characteristics of it!

BS: Right, I think all of that is understandable and I’ve thought some of those things myself. But my fear is that in trying to share our own deeply cherished feelings, positions and visions with others who don’t share them but who might if only we could communicate them–my fear is that it might practically require such an attenuation of them that it effectively amounts to a betrayal of them. Their authentically lived qualities–the exuberance and joyously fearless overzealousness I mentioned before–always gets lost when “politicizing” others becomes the goal of some specific activity rather than the necessary social effect of exhibiting a life as emancipated as possible. In other words, it could be that in the attenuation of energies required even in the simple, specific activity of “sitting down to have a conversation” with one’s little brother or whoever it might be, we are already basically volunteering to omit precisely what is most irresistible and most convincing about our perspective! Namely, that it makes us stand and jump, run in the streets, yell at cops, demand higher wages, demand respect, act out against institutions infinitely more powerful than us, travel, write, cry, all happily, publicly, proudly. It’s precisely these things we fail to do when we go out of our way to organize the depoliticized or educate friends and family. We give them everything boring, unconvincing, and dismissable (“OK Justin, we get it, you’re the youthful idealist in the family, but nothing is ever going to change!” rather than what is irresistible and undeniable (“Uh, what country is Justin in? Ever since that Occupy stuff I haven’t seen or heard from him in years, but he’s always writing crazy shit on the internet… He’s in love, too, it seems? He doesn’t seem to work much or care about anything I care about, he never even pays his bills or debts! Hmm, maybe things are changing…”). In other words, I feel the same things you’ve communicated, but I actually think the best way to care about others is to have as little respect for the status quo as possible, even the status quo that exists inside of them. To love the status quo inside of someone is simply to hate them, sweetly. The best way I can love someone, and refuse to leave them behind, is to live as forwardly, radically, and defiantly as possible. To show them and anyone else who’s paying any attention what can be won from fighting for a new subjectivity, something that I think is very much on the table for us, precisely because a radical political subjectivity hasn’t been widely on display or widely available for decades in this country. And finally, I think the difference between the original explosion of the Occupy movement and its sort of post-orgiastic “organizing” agenda currently is precisely this difference: that at first, it was exciting precisely because it heralded an emancipation of everyday life, but as soon as it degenerates back into the status quo of behaviors and practices available and unattractive for years, of course it has lost potency. I suppose it’s precisely coming out of this experience that to me, now, the path forward is the selfish-sounding but I think politically and ethically defensible commitment to emancipating myself from the status quo intensely as possible, in order to legitimately become political force rather than trying to organize its absence.

TBFOOM: I think my question, though, is not concerned at all with diverging from a revolutionary life, which by this point both of us clearly and resolutely aspire to and for. However, such a potent decision must content with the absolute fact that such a life does not, purposefully does not, defiantly does not, fit into life itself. It is at once a rejection from life as we know it and the absolute affirmation of life, a new life, a world-building affirmation. And those that cannot bear to reject this life instead sacrifice themselves to it. Sacrifice, in fact, seems to dominate the activist ethos and the activist’s self-image. It strikes me as quite Christian in origin, inherited from martyr narratives. Coincidentally enough, “burning out” is a phrase used to describe the logical outcome of the activist’s sacrifice, which strikes me as superbly reminiscent of a martyr’s burning at the stake, but that is beside the point. It seems clear that the question is not one should prevent burnout, but rather, what is it about the current paradigm of activism that is lending itself to this idea of sacrifice? I would argue that the difficulty of committing to a revolutionary life can be found in its outright rejection of self-sacrifice, and why conversations concerning political activism always return to the boring binary between revolution and reform, both of which ultimately return to the concept of sacrifice: with reformism, that sacrifice takes place in the form of an agreement between the subjects in the state, wherein both agree or consent to the others’ demands. With revolution, that sacrifice is ideally or in theory more short-lived - and is made in exchange for the outcome of the revolution itself, whether that be equality, the distribution of wealth, death to the aristocracy, etc - but nevertheless still presents itself as an inevitable component of such. This is where anarchist theory really comes in handy, in that the most basic action to which subjects are called is to live an autonomous and self-sovereign life, a will-full life.

BS: Yeah, it’s seems a sort of really insidiously conservative, ideological trap that to do organizing work seems to require the betrayal of precisely the lived reality of one’s own desires–the meetings!–a betrayal of the sovereign, omnidirectional intransigence that radicalism implies. There is a sort of prohibition on what the radically emancipated fulfillment of one’s desires actually looks like, precisely what could be perhaps the most revolutionary and sort of contagious activity, all in the name of trying to empower people who often suffer first and foremost from the forced depoliticization of their desire! It makes sense that contemporary capitalism will tolerate activist organizations so long as they prohibit their members from pursuing or spreading their own committed emancipation! “Organizing,” the very term, presupposes that the people to be organized are in fact political subjects. But what if the problem is precisely that we’ve become so depoliticized that, on some level, we’re not even political subjects? If this is the case, then most of what is called activism or organizing is not only going to be consistently and disappointingly unaffective, but it will also be–convenient for the status quo–actively repressive of the only activity privilege is good for, namely, unprofitable or we might say antiprofitable expenditures toward the creation of anticapitalist values, i.e. countercultures. And as if this is not convenient enough for the status quo, this particular distribution of priorities currently so common to Serious Radical Activists is reinforced even more by an often knee-jerk and tactically uncritical way of thinking and speaking about privilege. Specifically, we sort of police each other, in our shared disrespect for unfair privileges, into living and behaving conservatively rather than revealing and exhibiting precisely that to which it is such a travesty for us to have disproportionate access! Because we are aware of the injustice of our own privileges, we’ve developed an immobilizing neurosis around these privileges rather than using them to bite the hand the fed them to us. When we modestly “resist” our privileges, we think we are being educated, discipline radicals, but really we’re covering up the crimes of a capitalist distribution. We ought to use our privileges openly and provocatively, living freely and immodestly, irresistibly and politically, not only because we deserve freedom as much as anyone, but exactly in order to politicize a desire for them among those who ought to be up-in-arms for having been deprived them!

TBFOOM: I agree that one cannot simply hope to negate one’s privileges, as they are built on material borders, injustices, and inequalities, but instead one must try to enliven them to their own destruction, so to speak. Along those lines, in questioning the political capacity of the contemporary subject, I am reminded of much of the radical and critical theory written in the past 50 years or so, particularly Judith Butler’s work, which sets out to do exactly that: to problematize the subject. I do not think it’s a coincidence that theory is commonly conceived of as, if not the complement to praxis, it’s apolitical antithesis! The oft-exaggerated binary between theory and practice goes hand-in-hand with the outright aggression towards academics, philosophers, and more generally thinkers, which has been increasing over the past 60 or 70 years. What’s happening is a widespread and systematic repression of thinking itself. Yes, thinking, what a seemingly silly concept but one that is dangerously real nonetheless. Not only can we no longer trust in the existence of a subject equipped for politics, we can no longer taking for granted that there is a politics towards which subjects can turn to at all. There needs first to be the possibility of politics to occur. This is why I find that much political philosophy is no longer useful, despite it’s long tradition that began, arguably, with Plato. The question that needs to be asked now is not what one’s utopian model of democracy looks like, and then setting about to cast subjects towards this model, but instead questioning the very possibility of politics - and a political subject - entirely.

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Murphy, Justin. 2012. "Dialogue on trying to live a revolutionary life," https://jmrphy.net/blog/2012/09/06/30998215017/ (December 14, 2018).