Friday, 22 June 2007

Two all too insubstantial fragments on revolutionary theory


In my view, revolutionary theory is an articulation and explanation of those strains of dissatisfaction with the everyday life of contemporary capitalism that cannot be resolved outside of a social revolution and a critique of the subjective and objective obstacles that fetter the advance of such dissatisfaction towards its revolutionary remedy in the specific social circumstances that are now at hand. It can be of immediate interest and meaning only to individuals whose disillusion with everyday life has produced the particular depth of dissatisfaction to which revolutionary theory speaks. It does not follow that revolutionary theory is somehow permanently alien to the currently satisfied; it is just that satisfaction must undermine itself first. This is a matter less of the persuasive power of revolutionaries than it is of the contradictions and deficiencies of capitalism and the everyday life it sustains. Advanced capitalism increasingly justifies itself to the proletariat on the basis of its purported ability to deliver a richly rewarding everyday life, a life made up of various combinations of autonomy, excitement, glamour, sexual satisfaction, ecstasy, communication, community, enlightenment, delectable depravity, etc. Yet the trivialization, separation and subordination of an everyday life that is constrained to the production, circulation, glorification and consumption of commodities yields meagre rewards for even the most abject of spectators, and what little can be grasped is soon exhausted by experience or swept into obsolescence and ridicule by the next turn of the consumer's society's wheel. The task of the dominant society is to adroitly manage the change of illusions so as not to produce any insight into the illusion of change and to shrivel people's information, intelligence, desires, initiative and expectations of life down to the narrow dimensions that sustain some degree of satisfaction with, or resignation to, the society of the spectacle. Success is not certain for capitalism. Refusals of various sizes have erupted in the past. Moreover, the times in which we live hardly evidence a smooth absorption of the proletariat into spectacular life. Mental illness and depression appear rife. Even the well-adjusted and the pseudo-rebellious seem to have about their lives a desperation that speaks more of fragility and a grim clutching at consoling illusions that threaten to slip out of reach than of a stable and unthinking embrace of commodified existence. One would have to have a remarkable faith in capitalism to see in this state of affairs a definitive and permanent banishment of dialectics.


One task for revolutionaries and other proletarians is precisely to examine their own thoughts and feelings so as identify and confront the ideas and desires that are directly derived from the spectacle or that tend to sustain it within you and you within it. There is no algorithm for doing this and the process is inevitably fallible. It is, I would suggest, in the first instance a matter of tracing as far as possible the origins, natures, correlates and practical consequences of what we think and feel and ascertaining whether and how these serve to reproduce the system of alienation, on the one hand, or point beyond it, on the other. Needless to say, even if one is in a position to overcome particular alienated thoughts and practices to some degree in advance of revolutionary change, the exigencies and consequences of living within the society of the spectacle will either foster relapses into old ways or reconstitute alienation in new configurations in the changed circumstances in which one finds oneself. The process continues therefore until the individual acts with others to overthrow capitalism or subsides into one variety or other of resignation.