Monday, November 09, 2015

You Say You Want a Revolution. Tough, You Can't Have One.

Revolution is no longer an option. At least according to Byung-Chul Han who argues that the revolutionary remedy is foreclosed by neoliberalism.

Why is the neoliberal system of domination so stable? Why is there so little resistance to it? Why does the resistance that does occur so quickly come to naught? Why, despite the ever-expanding divide between rich and poor, is revolution no longer possible? To explain this state of affairs, we need a precise understanding of how power and domination function today.

In disciplinary and industrial society, system-preserving power was repressive. Factory workers were brutally exploited by factory owners. Such violent exploitation of others’ labour entailed acts of protest and resistance. There, it was possible for a revolution to topple the standing relations of production. In that system of repression, both the oppressors and the oppressed were visible. There was a concrete opponent — a visible enemy —and one could offer resistance.

The neoliberal system of domination has a wholly different structure. Now, system-preserving power no longer works through repression, but through seduction — that is, it leads us astray. It is no longer visible, as was the case under the regime of discipline. Now, there is no longer a concrete opponent, no enemy suppressing freedom that one might resist.

Neoliberalism turns the oppressed worker into a free contractor, an entrepreneur of the self. Today, everyone is a self-exploiting worker in their own enterprise. Every individual is master and slave in one. This also means that class struggle has become an internal struggle with oneself. Today, anyone who fails to succeed blames themself and feels ashamed. People see themselves, not society, as the problem.

...According to Naomi Klein, the state of social shock following catastrophes such as the financial crisis in South Korea — or the current crisis in Greece — offers the chance to radically reprogram society by force. Today, there is hardly any resistance in South Korea. Quite the opposite: a vast consensus prevails — as well as depression and burnout. South Korea now has the world’s highest suicide rate. People enact violence on themselves instead of seeking to change society. Aggression directed outward, which would entail revolution, has yielded to aggression directed inward, against oneself.

Today, no collaborative, networked multitude exists that might rise up in a global mass of protest and revolution. Instead, the prevailing mode of production is based on lonesome and isolated self-entrepreneurs, who are also estranged from themselves. Companies used to compete with each other. Within each enterprise, however, solidarity could occur. Today, everyone is competing against everyone else — and within the same enterprise, too. Even though such competition heightens productivity by leaps and bounds, it destroys solidarity and communal spirit. No revolutionary mass can arise from exhausted, depressive, and isolated individuals.

Neoliberalism cannot be explained in Marxist terms. The famous “alienation” of labour does not even occur. Today, we dive eagerly into work — until we burn out. The first stage of burnout syndrome, after all, is euphoria. Burnout and revolution are mutually exclusive. Accordingly, it is mistaken to believe that the Multitude will cast off the parasitic Empire to inaugurate a communist society.

So, if Mr. Han's dystopian vision is right, it's time to put down your pitchfork and pick up your bucket and mop. Clean up on Aisle 4. Get busy.


Owen Gray said...

Bowling Alone seems to be the predominant metaphor, Mound. Keep them isolated and keep the peace.

Kirbycairo said...

It is very common to forget just how rare revolutions really are and how low a people has to sink before they are willing to opt for the revolutionary option. (Putting aside the complex problem of the actual effectiveness of revolutions) Look at the Arab Spring. Decades of repression, poverty, corruption, and violence were put on the people of the Middle East. And terrible, near starvation conditions for many in Tunisia were endured before they began the movement. Though neo-liberal, digitalized capitalism is perhaps more flexible and better at atomizing a population, I suspect that, like any system, once the people are driven to far, rebellion will be just as inevitable as it has always been.

Toby said...

"Why is the neoliberal system of domination so stable? Why is there so little resistance to it?"

Because most people are easily seduced by cheap stuff.

Northern PoV said...

Gloom fest. My turn. ;-)
Lobsters in a pot.
Things change once the water starts to boil. Could be a while but it is coming.
But then we're ... cooked.

Unknown said...

Neoliberalism for the most part operates in secrecy. You don't see government officials on meet the press or question period, talking about Neoliberalism and why they thinks it's a good system for a country to have. The word Neoliberalism is not even uttured by Politicians, Journalists, the corporate elites. You cannot have a revolution against an invisible enemy and that is what Neoliberalism is, invisible.It absolutely amazes me that the very system that is destroying Country after country is rarely even named. Being invisible is a strategy more then any other strategy, that has allowed the Neoliberals to succeed.

Anonymous said...

Anyong said: Neoliberalism began in South Korea around 2000 but became full force just as I left in 2011 with the suicide of the former President No, Moo-hyun. Arriving back to Canada wasn't any different. A business person whom was known to me before leaving to go to South Korea, was brazen enough to say, "If I had to go overseas to work then I was not a successful person". Actually it was said to me twice. How does one revolt against such an attempt to degrade. It is easy to do since people consider others invisible. How true your comment Pamela.

Kirbycairo said...

@ Pamela - You are right about public discourse being limited. However, people don't have to know that much about a system to rebel against it. The people who stormed the Bastille weren't rebelling against a 'gradually declining feudalistic social order.' Rather, they were rebelling against crushing poverty, arbitrary power, terrible inequality, and an aristocracy that was totally out of touch with the vast majority of people. The truth of the matter is that revolution seldom results from a sophisticated and well-informed public, but rather from an angry, confused, and desperate one.

Mark said...

Here's the thing: I don't think we need a revolution.

The neoliberal gang didn't win what they have through revolution; they won by playing the Long Game. That's what progressives need to do as well.

That may not sound as satisfying as saying "Let's over-throw the government; and we'll have everything we want by tomorrow!" - but it does avoid the biggest potential problem with attempting revolution: corporate control of the instruments of public opinion.

Look at how the corporate controlled media handles political protest. Turning public opinion against the protesters; even then the public is overwhelmingly in agreement with the protesters' fundamental message.

Anyone who did try to start a revolution would undoubtedly be cast as a Dire Security Threat; one that must be suppressed by any means imaginable.

How do we win the Long Game?

We already have a pretend/quasi democracy.

We just elected a government that won by appealing to the progressive vote; and which, since winning, seems at least superficially willing to acknowledge that fact. Already, in it's short time in government, that government has made changes, or made progress towards changes, that are at least moving in the right direction.

I don't know how many of their own campaign promises the Liberal Party actually intends to keep. But even if it's only half, (depending on which half,) it would still be moving in the right direction.

The thing to do then, is to put as much pressure as we can on the Liberal Party to keep as many of it's campaign promises as we can get them to - minus the not so progressive promises. And make sure they know that we expect even more progressive stuff, after they are done doing that.

The other thing is the TPP. It's not necessarily game over if it goes through, but obviously it would make for a steep uphill battle if it does.

I've already written two emails to the Liberal Party, since they got elected, regarding the TPP; more are in the pipeline.

There are those who would call what I'm doing "slacktivism."

But compared to anyone who's going to sit around and mope that we can't have a revolution; at least I'm doing something. Enough people all telling the Liberal Party they need to drop the TPP if the want to stay in power will have an effect.

It may not be Viva La Revolucion, but with enough people sending a message to the Liberal Party, it can be Real Change.

Toby said...

A revolution doesn't have to be violent. It doesn't even have to be something we recognize.

Unknown said...

Kirby, the fact that the public is not having a discourse about Neoliberalism, Is not what really bothers me, it is the MSM, the government and the Corporations that keep completely silent and operate in secrecy to implement Neoliberal trade deals and policies. This is what makes it invisible, so the public has no idea what's going on. I agree that revolutions come from an angry and confused public not an informed one. When the public gets angry because they no longer have control of their country who are they going to point the finger at? The Communist revolution could pointed to the abuse of the Tsar.The French could point to the aristocracy and the monarchy for their extreme poverty, and their autocratic power.The Americans could point to the British colonialists. When people finally realize something is wrong and start rioting and protesting,it won't be against Neoliberalism. It will be against the Neoliberalism consequences, poverty, inequality, autocracy, elimination of democratic rights and freedoms.With all of Neoliberals disguises like trade agreements, privatization, discontinued funding of social programs to name a few and because Neoliberalism is both domestic and global, who are the people now angry and protesting going to point to? Being invisible is what gives Neoliberalism its power. By the time people get angry and start fighting back, it will be to late.

The Mound of Sound said...

The comments here demonstrate that none of us has (or can have for that matter) a reliable vision of what awaits our society and every other in the decades ahead. We're very nearly at the cliff's edge. We either must find new modes of organization - economic, social and political (domestic and international) - or the inertia of the old models will drag us over the edge.

As Mark noted, we have a "pretend/quasi democracy" which reflects the transition to less liberal democracies occurring worldwide. How much of the elation we felt in the wake of the last election came from the ouster of Harper, how much from the installation of Trudeau and his (so far) seeming intent to stage a progressive restoration? Both factors were present and seemingly inseparable but I suspect that each was somewhat distinct of the other. Taken together, however, they reflected a righting of the political keel in a nation that had, for a decade, listed toward illiberal democracy.

The politics of fear and division were the stock in trade of Stephen Harper. Curiously (and despicably) enough these were tools or weapons he employed to greatest effect on his own supporters. He corralled his base with threats of the incompetence of his rivals; their amoral, godless ways; the danger of the nation falling into the control of the "other" and, to be honest, by appeals to his supporters basest instincts and biases.

It was fascinating to watch how, in trouncing first Dion and then Ignatieff, Harper quite deliberately avoided having to run on either his record or his vision. He turned both campaigns into referenda on the opposition leader and merely offered the public "competent management" in lieu of any actual platform. That was about as close as we got to honesty from Harper. He didn't propose to lead but only to manage, administer, rule.

In Harper's approach was the essence of democracy. You still get to vote but your vote doesn't matter much except to decide by whom you'll be ruled. It isolates the governed from those who rule, a gap wide enough to accommodate the influence of new interests - corporatism. This is the inevitable outcome of neoliberalism indulged, even nurtured. In the States it's called "political capture" which is so evident in Republican hopefuls courting the billionaires - the Kochs, the Coors family, Sheldon Adelson - whose money largely determines the leadership contests.

But I'm rambling. This is the stuff for an essay, not a comment. I guess I'll just repeat my opening comment. I'm not sure we can assess the prospects for revolutionary change on the strength of the past when the future isn't likely to resemble what has gone before.