What Does It Mean to Be a Revolutionary Today?

The topic of revolution has suddenly become relevant again, primarily because of three recent developments: the worldwide economic crisis, the election of Barack Obama, and the uprising in Iran. Eric Alterman compares our current predicament to the one faced by Franklin Roosevelt and finds Obama insufficiently bold compared to FDR, perhaps, Alterman suggests, because FDR didn’t have to contend with an army of lobbyists working on the inside against him and constant braying from right-wing demagogues working on the outside. Alterman says bolder action to combat the current economic crisis is hampered by “a political discourse that ranges ‘from the moderate left to
the far right’ with no room for the kind of bold ‘persistent
experimentation’ needed to rescue America from the catastrophes it faces
after eight years of incompetence, extremism and corruption enabled by a
proudly clueless but uneducable punditocracy.”

Putting aside the issue of exploiting an economic crisis to push through a radical agenda, which the left has long accused the right of doing, the question is this: Is communicative rationality enough to solve our collective problems?

Arguably, communicative rationality is the source of Obama’s revolutionary potential. Has Obama failed to take sufficiently bold action because he could only come up with $800 billion to rescue the economy, or because he hasn’t led a purge of all conservatives from government and the public sphere?

Last Monday Slavoj Žižek gave a speech in which he dismisses liberal faith the incremental change brought about by communicative rationality. (Watch the speech on YouTube.) In “What Does It Mean to Be a Revolutionary Today?” Žižek calls for radical action against what he sees as the totality of the capitalist system. Ever the Lacanian, Žižek regards capitalism as a sort of obsessive neurotic giant desperately clinging to its problems–everything from ecological disaster to Islamic fundamentalism–just to reassure itself that nothing will change. He cites Walter Benjamin’s dictum that every fascism is an index of a failed revolution to make the claim that right-wing demagoguery in the US and Islamic fundamentalism are both symptoms of a deeper problem within global capitalism. Žižek would argue, for instance, that Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, which enlists starchitects to rescue the poor of New Orleans, is insufficiently bold because does nothing to address the underlying cause of substandard housing. Although Žižek doesn’t explicitly make this claim, he suggests the Iranians are rebelling against their cultural and political mandarins so that we don’t have to rebel against ours.

As usual, Žižek veers between the sublime and the ridiculous in his talk. After telling a vulgar joke he abruptly calls for more modernity, more rationality, not less. To take Benjamin’s remark about fascism one step further, we should look for the moment of truth buried within the shouting from the “proudly clueless but uneducable punditocracy.” Sure Rush Limbaugh is a blight on the republic, but in his backhanded way he recognizes there’s a madness in the system that’s experience at an individual level as alienation from modernity itself.

It would be gratifying if the president could smite Limbaugh and his fellow bloviators like Obama crushed that fly in the MSNBC studio, but simply dismissing them from the national dialogue would be irrational. It would be the difference between boldness for boldness’s sake, and genuinely thoughtful action.

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