Friday, September 02, 2011

In the Eye of the Storm: Sunny Skies with a Chance of Chaotic, Violent Outbreaks

Bernard E. Harcourt

These are interesting times. Within the span of a week, both Cornel West and Slavoj Zizek have called for revolution in respected reviews. With the Tea Party maintaining its momentum at the other end of the spectrum—perhaps gaining momentum with Texas governor Rick Perry—it’s beginning to feel that we are oddly in a calm period with a threat of storm.

Cornel West’s op-ed on contemporary race relations in the New York Times was remarkable, if nothing else for the fact that the Times decided to print it. “Dr. Martin Luther King Would Want a Revolution,” that’s a bold title. Dr. West had a blistering splash at the end about “life and death confrontations with the powers that be”—to be sure, mellowed in between with more sedate policy advice (like supporting “progressive politicians like Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont”). But the ending was truly fiery: “King’s response to our crisis can be put in one word: revolution. . . . Like King, we need to put on our cemetery clothes and be coffin-ready for the next great democratic battle.”

A few days earlier, in the pages of the London Review of Books, Slavoj Zizek published a fascinating analysis of the London riots—and of the Spanish protests, of the Arab Spring, and of the Greek meltdown—in an article titled “Shoplifters of the World Unite.” Zizek interprets the London riots as a form of chaotic, self-destructive violence in a post-ideological age. Frustrated by the contemporary condition of Western liberty—“What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence?” he asks—Zizek too concluded the piece on a fiery note: “to impose a reorganisation of social life… one needs a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with all necessary harshness.”

Meanwhile, at the other end of the political spectrum, Governor Perry is having book signings for his “Fed Up!”, a radical book that condemns Social Security as “a crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal” and attacks climate change as “all one contrived phony mess.”

We are indeed living through remarkable times, in the shadow or perhaps swirl (behind or ahead of us) of economic uncertainty surrounding the Great Recession. There is a feeling of calm mixed with sporadic threats—reflecting a constellation of seemingly new developments.

It’s a period, after all, marked firstly by a massive amount of surveillance, an unprecedented degree of monitoring that is aimed predominantly at African-Americans and Hispanics. For instance, in New York City, in a period of remarkably low street-crime, the NYPD is engaging in unparalleled numbers of stops-and-frisks. Just last year, in 2010, the NYPD reported a record 601,055 stops-and-frisks, 85% of which were of minority residents. The City is on pace to bat over 700,000 in 2011. Where I live, in Hyde Park, the enhanced levels of surveillance are felt mostly by the new positioning of more than a dozen private security guards on the Midway to ensure our safe passage from one side of campus to the other—and increased police patrols of the campus neighborhood.

At the same time, at least in policy circles, the authoritarian fist of the state seems to have achieved unparalleled legitimacy. I’ve argued that it’s the product, in part, of neoliberal ideas—of the dominant belief that the government is incompetent when it comes to economic matters, but legitimate and competent in the area of policing and punishing. But it also has something to do with the fact that so many police chiefs have managed to take credit for the massive, national crime drop--credit which has greatly enhanced the legitimacy of law enforcement.

Meanwhile, we experience occasional outbursts of organized/chaotic violence. There are “flash mobs” in Philadelphia—random acts of violence perpetrated, apparently, by groups of young men who use social media to locate each other. Those mobs are being met by equally violent language from city leaders, including the mayor, Michael Nutter. Then there are riots in London and in the Parisian banlieus—in both cases, instigated by excessive police force and the death of one or more civilians, but in both cases now associated with chaotic excess. As Zizek writes, “It is difficult to conceive of the UK rioters in Marxist terms, as an instance of the emergence of the revolutionary subject; they fit much better the Hegelian notion of the ‘rabble’, those outside organised social space, who can express their discontent only through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence – what Hegel called ‘abstract negativity.’”

In Spain, the indignados protest the political system, and, as Zizek emphasizes, do so in an oddly a-political way--again, post ideology. The manifesto of Spanish indignados reads: “Some of us consider ourselves progressive, others conservative. Some of us are believers, some not. Some of us have clearly defined ideologies, others are apolitical…” This is evidence, Zizek suggests, that “Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst.”

It feels as if we are entering a new political environment that calls for interpretation and better understanding. This is true at home here in the United States, but it seems to be true in other Western countries as well. I’m calling it here “in the eye of the storm”—it is this feeling of calm, but with the threat of storm. I’ve no idea what the future holds, I’m not suggesting that there is a storm brewing. It could be that we stay in the eye for a long time. But there is an uncanny feeling. Cemetery clothes and coffin-ready… these words demand some reflection.


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