John Sheil

Revolution, Where Are You?

by John Sheil

A spectre is haunting the UK, the spectre of Brexit. What it really entails, few can tell, but it hangs like an omen over the future, draining all thought and action. Will Brexit ever end? There is a sense that no matter how low our expectations are of the current political situation, reality contrives to make it worse. This ‘Brexit realism’ is entirely fitting for the current order which can no longer guarantee a brighter future. Instead, down is up: austerity fanatics now support public spending infrastructure plans, an MP is murdered, and stateless children are considered burdens.

In order to strengthen my psychic self-defence against this Brexit realism, I went to southern Europe for the C17 conference on Communism in Rome. The conference was called in order to think about the idea of communism in the 21st century and what it looks like, with the flares of history to guide the discussion. A social centre in Rome known as ESC Atelier, an autogestito or, self-managed, space in the east of the city organised the event to mark 100 years since the 1917 Russian revolution. Luminaries such as Toni Negri, Luciana Castellina, Paulo Virno, Silvia Federici, Saskia Sassen, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi and Slavoj Zizek contributed to the discussion.

The stand-out idea of the conference was this: for the last two centuries, there have been many namings of utopia. In the 18th century the 1789 French revolution embodied the idea; in the 19th century it was the 1871 Paris commune; and in the 20th it was the 1917 Bolshevik revolution or the events of May 1968. But our current historical moment begins with the fall of utopias. To paraphrase philosopher and sociologist Jean-François Lyotard, there are no more grand narratives – not even revolution – which can withstand any incredulity. It is no longer about the temporality of clocks and stock markets, but the infinite speed of algorithms. It looks like everything is changing, new smartphones every year, but what’s happening isn’t a transformation, but a preservation of the current social economic order. In a beautiful talk, historian Enzo Traverso, called this an “historical regime of the present”. Past and future are absorbed and compressed in a diluted present, which collapses the possibility of historical memory into capitalism and reappropriates the moment after capitalism as simply a continuation of the same. There is no alternative, which, as Marxist theorist Franco Berardi pointed out, is another way of saying “there is no way out”. With this colonisation of the future’s imaginarium comes the decline of communist memory, of what the good life could be.

In this way, we can understand communism as the naming of a utopia that goes against the current order, and of an alternative reality which does not exist coherently as a rival to capital as yet. It is important to use this term because, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek pointed out in his video transmission, the left have worked within the co-ordinates set out by political scientist Francis Fukuyama for far too long. Fukuyama’s argument went like this: in the conclusion of liberal democracy and the fall of communism history has reached its synthesis. It’s like this forever now. Zizek in his video to the conference called the 90’s ‘leftist-Fukuyamism’: change a few things, campaign for more health-care, more workers’ rights and so on, but the deal is the same. This was the compromise of the social democrats. Nothing but a quick fix. It is crystal clear now that this moment is over. The inauguration of the Ku Klux Klan’s candidate into the White House, the genuinely tragic capitulation of Greece’s Syriza to financial instruments, and the deaths of thousands more like Alan Kurdi across the Mediterranean are sufficient to show this. Therefore, we have to find what comes after. Zizek put it like this: “I would like to see V for Vendetta II, what happens the day after the revolution has happened?”

Within the conference, the framework was a discourse around the creation of a constituent power. One of the main terms that ran through the conference was the idea of ‘dual power’; an umbrella concept that has grown popular in recent years. Dual power refers to the making of a constituent power that is other to hegemonic power -specifically that of the state- but that can withstand and fight it. This was a term used by Lenin to describe the situation during 1917 when the workers’ councils, the Soviets, and the government existed alongside each other and competed for legitimacy. These are ideas that are prominent and lead on from the work of sociologist Antonio Negri and literary theorist Michael Hardt’s trilogy Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth.

There were only a few voices that were able to not only engage with these ideas but meaningfully suggest opposing views, like pointing out that millions of working class Americans voted for Trump. There was a lot of discourse surrounding Silicon Valley and it was used as an analogy for the factory in the 1970s. For example, capital has managed to find a way to extract value from our ‘keywords’ – the words we use most often to socially co-operate. Indeed, there was a lot of debate surrounding materialist ideas of reappropriating the means of social reproduction from capital and then considering the effect that the current social conditions has rendered upon the psyches and minds of the workers. But, as Negri put it, hic Rhodus hic salta (‘you don’t choose your obstacles, you overcome them’.)

Other than that, the discussion was a real disappointment, filled with long emissives, which philosopher Paolo Virno rightly diagnosed as “academic communism”. It seems one of the few spaces to think deeply about political economy is the academy and as such the talks seemed divorced from any real anime rebelli. Some talks had a tendentious, almost random, relation to communism. Some were blatantly made up on the spot, such as the massively disappointing talk given by writer Christian Marazzi, who I’d been really excited to see after reading his work on debt. The format offered no arena for discussion except a 3 hour slot on the last day, which was a Sunday. Numbers were dramatically reduced and the median age rose sharply, as few twenty-somethings, apart from yours truly and his equally nerdy crew, made it in for the morning speakers. The only transmission of ideas across nations happened in the smoking area: the borrowing of headsets for translation between Italian, French and English, and in A.S. Roma football club’s mega-fan Osvaldo’s pizza parlour round the corner, where we ate kilos of provola piccante e melanzane.

Rivoluzione dove sei? (‘Revolution, where are you?’) reads graffiti on a wall as we drive out of Rome. It perfectly sums up our moment; an ending that seems to be never-ending. The new has got to be coming. It’s got to rupture soon, hasn’t it?


Published 4th February 2017

This work by Novara Media is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

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