Revolution Today
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Revolution Today

Susan Buck-Morss

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eBook - ePub

Revolution Today

Susan Buck-Morss

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Susan Buck-Morss asks: What does revolution look like today? How will the idea of revolution survive the inadequacy of the formula, "progress = modernization through industrialization, " to which it has owed its political life?

Socialism plus computer technology, citizen resistance plus a global agenda of concerns, revolutionary commitment to practices that are socially experimental and inclusive of difference—these are new forces being mobilized to make another future possible.

Revolution Today celebrates the new political subjects that are organizing thousands of grass roots movements to fight racial and gender violence, state-led terrorism, and capitalist exploitation of people and the planet worldwide. The twenty-first century has already witnessed unprecedented popular mobilizations. Unencumbered by old dogmas, mobilizations of opposition are not only happening, they are gaining support and developing a global consciousness in the process. They are themselves a chain of signifiers, creating solidarity across language, religion, ethnicity, gender, and every other difference.

Trans-local solidarities exist. They came first. The right-wing authoritarianism and anti-immigrant upsurge that has followed is a reaction against the amazing visual power of millions of citizens occupying public space in defiance of state power.

We cannot know how to act politically without seeing others act. This book provides photographic evidence of that fact, while making us aware of how much of the new revolutionary vernacular we already share.

Susan Buck-Morss is distinguished professor of political philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center, NYC. Her work crosses disciplines, including art history, architecture, comparative literature, cultural studies, German studies, philosophy, history, and visual culture.

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1. Nation State / Global Capital
The United Nations, founded 1945, New York City headquarters designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, completed in 1952
The nation state is not an eternal political form. It became normative as a global world order only after World War II. The United Nations headquarters in New York City was its visual manifestation. The victors in the war determined its structure. They included, significantly, the Soviet Union, which exhibited a marked shift toward nationalist goals during and after the war. The exiled national government in Taiwan, rather than the People’s Republic on the mainland, acquired Chinese representation. For prewar colonies, the United Nations became the site of struggles for recognition of their independence from European rule. This new geopolitical order appeared incompatible with the Euro-American imperial past. From this time forward, the world was to be organized in terms of nation states. Historically, some would be in advance of others, some would be behind, and others would be fighting wars of national liberation, but the ordering form remained dominated by this conceptual imaginary. All international issues after 1950 presumed this national order as the hegemonic norm.
The nation state as an epistemological form captured certain realities but obscured others. It could not recognize the existence of non-state political imaginaries already in existence. This applied not only to socialist internationalism but also to multiple cases where postcolonial political realities had very little to do with boundaries that had been drawn by the colonial powers.1
One particularly visionary alternative to the nation-state order was the trans-regional movement of Négritude, which was born in Paris among a diaspora of intellectuals from geographically distant countries in Africa and the Caribbean, and which developed its political theory through literature, poetry, and painting. Négritude’s political goal was a transformation of Black consciousness, in the context of which Martinique-born Aimé Césaire and Senegal-born Léopold Senghor rejected the model for anticolonial struggles as national liberation. The goal for Senghor and Césaire was to transform the colonies into equal partners within a decentralized, territorially interdependent, culturally diverse, and democratically governed republic. In our own time of global interconnectedness and multiple diasporas, Négritude’s forms of resistant cosmopolitanism seem strikingly relevant.2 What developed instead were European nations that classified nonwhite and non–native born people as minorities, immigrants, or refugees, and a series of new, postcolonial nations that were equal in name only.
Cover of The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, by W. W. Rostow. The five stages of national growth: (1) Traditional society; (2) Preconditions for takeoff; (3) Takeoff; (4) Drive to maturity; (5) Age of high mass consumption.
One of the most blatant examples of the distortions produced by national analyses is in the realm of the economy. In 1960, W. W. Rostow published a highly influential book entitled The Stages of Economic Growth. There were five such stages, and all nation states were expected to pass through them as they advanced toward the uncritically accepted goal of a modern-industrialized national economy. The book was subtitled A Non-Communist Manifesto; its political purpose was to provide an alternative conception of time to the one that dominated in Marxist discourse: the historically consecutive stages of feudalism and capitalism, leading inevitably to socialism.
To reflect upon how damaging epistemological forms can be, how they can block a clear analysis of what in fact is happening, we need only recall the pathbreaking critique provided by the articulators of dependency theory—writers who challenged the imaginary of nation states and the common Marxist variant of inevitable developmental forms. Argentinian-born Raúl Prebisch did the initial empirical research, discovering that the increasing poverty of underdeveloped countries was directly correlated to the increasing wealth of rich nations. This led to important theoretical innovations by a transnational group of scholars: US-born Immanuel Wallerstein, the Brazilians Fernando Henrique Cardozo and Theotonio dos Santos, Enzo Faletto of Chile, and Walter Rodney of Guyana, among others.
Center-periphery unequal flows
Their work showed that the poverty of the countries in the periphery is not because they lack integration into the world system—they are integrated—but a function of how, given that system’s structural inequalities. This conceptual shift was profound. The blow to methodological nationalism struck by dependency theory was the precursor to all postcolonial theory that followed. It was subsequently argued that there would have been no rise of Europe without the rise of European colonial occupation, over several centuries, that included the extraction of natural resources, the exploitation of human labor, and accumulation of surplus value in the form of private and national-imperial wealth.
The continued relevance of dependency theory to uneven development of the countries in the European Union is a point of present debate. The questions are: How much have the “core” countries of the EU benefitted from unequal partnership with those of the Global South, and how responsible is financial capitalism in the core for the economic collapse of southern countries, while the finance capitalists benefit from the austerity programs of debt repayment that have followed? Moreover: How much has nationalist rhetoric destroyed the potential for working-class solidarity in the EU across boundaries of national difference?
Geopolitics in the twenty-first century. Ranking the world’s top economies: US—China—Japan—Germany—England—India—France—Brazil
But the geopolitical map is shifting once again, as formerly core regions of the world economy lose their dominance and the powers of global capital continue to expand. These tendencies determine the present historical conjuncture, situating where we are in time.
Because of the hegemony of the nation-state model, which continues to dominate even in the federated economic unit of Europe, the only significant political power that people have today is through the institutions of the specific nation states in which they are citizens. At the same time, and in contradiction to this political ordering, their fates—economically, and in every other way—are tied to those elsewhere. The capacity of national governments to protect their citizens from crises within the global economic order is structurally limited, as Southeast Asia discovered in 1997, Argentina in 2001, the United States in 2008, and Greece in 2015.
Thailand, Silom Road, 1997. The baht has collapsed and a very unpopular IMF is imposing massive restrictions on the country.
March in continuing opposition to the Argentinian government’s agreement with the IMF, May 25, 2018
Marchers in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 24, 2009, protesting the 2009 G-20 Summit
Protest against the Irish government’s handling of the financial crisis, February 21, 2009
Greece votes “NO”—OXI—(61 percent) against the austerity demanded by the EU, 2015
As a response to the globalization of the economy, nationalism continues its political appeal. Indeed, it has become more strident. Yet, resistance to global capital cannot be successful at the level of nation states. Nor can national governments resolve other fundamental issues that underlie politics in our time. Questions of war and peace—and now, with increasing significance, issues of climate change and ecological limits—call for global solidarity as a political imperative. From the perspective of the world’s bio-interrelatedness, all wars today are civil wars. No population of living organisms would survive a nuclear World War III unscathed.
World nuclear forces 2018: countries possessing nuclear weapons, number of warheads worldwide
Polar bears declared threatened species by the US government, May 2008
The post–World War II era has been defined by scientists as the Age of the Anthropocene. Human activity is now the dominant influence on climate and the environment, and the survival of species in the natural world. Seeing the planet in this way makes evident the irrationality of the political world order. The endangered ecosystem and the exclusionary, self-interested policies of nation states are incompatible. Transnational solidarity is a necessity. But can it happen?
“The ...