- Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cénotaphe à Newton (1784)
As if anticipating our own historical moment, Guy Debord once offered the following advice to anyone seeking to change the world: “Be realistic,” he insisted. “Demand the impossible!”
It is perhaps no coincidence that the only politics befitting the dignity of human freedom today seems to us an impossibility. We stand at the end of a long line of revolutionary defeats — some tragic, others farcical. The world lies strewn with the detritus of dead epochs. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
And yet the past feels unbearably remote and out of reach, uncomprehended; it confronts us as an alien entity. Yesterday’s grand visions of emancipation appear to us as so many distant, delicate daydreams — untenable, unthinkable. Still in the background one can hear the faint echoes of La Marseillaise and L’Internationale, the notes all run together.
But these notes have largely been drowned out by the white noise of postmodernity. The memory of such past struggles has faded, humanity’s deepest wish-fulfillments forgotten. Instead we remain spellbound and transfixed by the current state of affairs. We have lost the ability to imagine a society built on principles fundamentally different from our own.
Without an adequate understanding of the past, we have chained ourselves to the dumb reality of the present, abandoning all hope for a better future. What little political imagination still survives is kept alive only by scavenging the desiccated remains of what once was possible. We have thus set sail into the open seas of ahistory, and landed promptly in oblivion. Only now are we beginning to glimpse the first rose-fingered rays of the dawn of a new era.
Despite all the emphasis placed upon “letting voices be heard” or “hearing voices” (one almost begins to feel schizophrenic) we have as yet been unable to voice a single demand. Every attempt to articulate a unified vision of the world to come has been lost amidst the general cacophony and confusion.
Feelings of futility notwithstanding, we are nonetheless compelled to go back to the old drawing-board — to “give it another go.” To launch a manifesto one has to want: A, B, & C; and fulminate against: 1, 2, & 3. One must sign, shout, swear, and organize prose into a form that is absolutely and irrefutably obvious, in order to prove its ne plus ultra.
Section I: Liberty
But rather than just air a laundry-list of social grievances, a kitchen-sink of disconnected single issues divorced from any broader vision of global emancipation, we prefer to rally under the banner of one overarching principle that encompasses them all. This is at once the most abstract, metaphysical, but for that very reason the most radical of all demands:
Humanity can accept nothing less than the promise of limitless, inalienable liberty — or what is the same, freedom.
This universal ideal has in recent years been rendered increasingly banal and diluted, robbed of the radicalism it once held. Yet it is incumbent upon us to rescue this once noble notion from the clutches of its supposed spokesmen, to defend its honor against those who presently claim to act in its name. For the false “freedom” that has so far been offered up to us under our present system is akin to the cheap sense of freedom one gets from selecting among various brands of the same basic product at the supermarket. It is the illusory freedom of the slave who merely gets to freely choose his master.
The question of freedom must be posed afresh — in its most profound sense — so that it might be retrieved. For in the answer to this question alone resides the secret of the Revolution. The cry of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité!” still rings through the ages, but it has fallen on deaf ears. Humanity must be awakened from its comatose state, its long ahistorical torpor, so that freedom can at last be realized.
By “freedom” or “liberty” is understood at least the following:
1. Freedom from oppression.
2. Freedom from want.
3. Freedom from fear.
4. Freedom from war (Kant’s “perpetual peace,” fœdus pacificum).
5. Freedom from disease.
6. Freedom from ignorance.
7. Freedom from apathy (the anomie described by Durkheim).
8. Freedom from boredom (the colorless tedium of daily life, Baudelairean ennui).
9. Freedom from imposed necessity.
10. Freedom without borders (liberté sans frontières).
The only limits that can be reasonably placed on freedom are in fact not limits at all: they only limit the false and shallow sense of freedom that has been sold to us under our present society. Quite obviously, one person’s freedom cannot be had at the expense of another person’s freedom. One cannot impinge upon the rights of others, and thus the civic freedom granted to every member of society does not grant anyone the license to kill, rape, exploit, or otherwise delimit the freedom of a fellow human being. As Kant put it, “The definition of freedom would thus be as follows: freedom is the ability to act in ways in which one does no wrong to anyone else in so acting.”
Moreover, the freedom to live as one wants in the present cannot be at exercised at the expense of the freedom to live as one wants in the future. This, we maintain, is the rational essence of the fashionable notion of “sustainability.” Of course, this should not imply its converse, its abstract negation: living for tomorrow at the expense of living today. Living freely should not be conceived as requiring some sort of new asceticism, the austerity measures of eco-scarcity. Rather, this should challenge us to find ways of cultivating inexhaustible abundance. Perhaps it is not just some happy accident of etymology that the old Aristotelian notion of εύδαιμονία (eudaimonia), traditionally translated as “the good life,” should at the same time signify an unparalleled “flourishing.”
Finally, the universal nature of this liberty would simultaneously entail the total equality of all society’s individual members, irrespective of their particular race, gender, age, or religious/sexual orientation. The freedoms guaranteed under an emancipated society would extend to all the peoples of the world. This would make possible, for the first time, the true “liberty of all” (omnium libertati).
In order to ensure the freedom and equality that such a society would grant to each of its individual members, the wealth of the world must be made equally available to all. However, this should not be mistaken for some vulgar distributist notion, whereby society would simply “carve up the pie” and apportion the pieces out equally (according to fixed quotas). Different people have different needs. The needs of a blind man are not the same as someone who can see. True freedom would thus require that each person’s individual needs be met. Only then would they be free to creatively develop and express their individuality as they wish.
To illustrate this idea, we may take as an example the commodity pepper — a spice once so rare and valuable that entire wars were fought over its possession. Today, however, if one goes and sits down in a restaurant, she will typically notice that there is a well-stocked peppershaker at every table. The question of whether each person has the exact same quantity of pepper as her neighbor never even arises. It exists in such abundance that one simply takes as much as she needs. In a truly emancipated society, this concept would be generalized to include all the needs of society.
Section II: History
All this said, let us briefly take stock of our present situation and how we came to this point. Once this has been achieved, we might be better able to discern the practical exigencies that face us in our time, and from there ascertain the possibilities for an emancipated future moving forward. A glance into the past drives us on toward the future, inflames our courage to go on living, and kindles the hope that justice will someday come, that happiness is waiting just on the other side of the mountain we are approaching.
From Nature we have built up our own “second nature” — society — which still presently compels us and presses us into its service. To this day we treat its every blind caprice and passing fancy if it were the outcome of some natural law, eternal and unchanging. Its periodic crises appear to us as accidental, a result of human error. In reality, however, the entire rotten system is founded upon a perpetual crisis occurring at the core of production. International capital is as the insatiable god Baal, into whose bloody maw millions upon millions of steaming human sacrifices are thrown.
Though this “second nature” that surrounds us is a product of our own making, it has acquired a phantom objectivity all its own. It appears to us in an estranged form, as something that operates independently of our will. Unconscious — and seemingly devoid of agency — we remain entrapped within a prison we ourselves have built. At the same time, society has further alienated itself from the original Nature from whence it sprang. We have endured the disenchantment of the world; Nature presents itself to us only in a mediated and obscure fashion. As helpless spectators we are forced to look on as modern society, driven by its fathomless hunger to extract surplus-value, devours the whole Earth.
This overwhelming feeling of helplessness owes to a severe frustration with the faculty of action in the modern world. That is, it indicates an underlying despair with regard to the real efficacy of political will, of political agency. In a historical situation of heightened helplessness, gestures of “resistance” against the dominant order have both served to express the rage of helplessness while at the same time helping to suppress the feeling of disquietude that comes along with this helplessness. The idea of fundamentally transforming society has for the most part been bracketed and, instead, replaced by the more ambiguous notion of “resistance.”
In the absence of effective leadership and long-term goals, campaigns of activism-for-its-own-sake amount to a politics of acting out, an unreflective and compulsive desire for theatrical “agitation,” “consciousness-raising,” and “resistance.” Unwilling to acknowledge this looming sense of lost agency, participants in such blind actions refuse to reflect on their own impotence. By stubbornly denying the inconsequence of their own actions, however, they only perpetuate their helpless, disenfranchised state.
But what can conquer this feeling of helplessness is the force of life itself; historical consciousness and activity can annul it. In the final analysis, this feeling is simply the product of tradition, an instinctual vestige of millennia of terror and illiteracy. More recently, it has been the result of humanity’s repeated failures to resolve its historical dilemma. Its origin can be traced, however. To make it the object of history is to recognize its emptiness and overcome it. By bringing feeling, as well as fact, into the sphere of history, one is finally able to see that it is in history alone that the explanation of our present situation lies.
For we feel an enormous, irresistible force from our human past. We recognize the good things it has brought us, in the knowledge that what once was possible might someday be possible again. But we also recognize the bad, in the many living fossils — anachronistic remnants and outmoded states of mind — that persist into the present. And this is why we must call ourselves modern. Because, though we feel the past fueling our struggle, it is a past that we have tamed — our servant, not our master — a past which illuminates and does not overshadow us.
Until we gain self-conscious mastery over this social world we have created, however, humanity will remain unfree. To date, men have made their own history, but have not made it as they please; they have not made it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. Once we are able to finally take command of the vast forces of production we have released into the world, humanity’s own social organization — hitherto confronting it as a necessity imposed by history — will now become the result of its own free action. The heteronomous forces that have up to this point governed history now pass under the control of humanity itself.
Only from that time forth will humanity make its own history, rather than be made by history. It will signal humanity’s ascent from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.
Behold what quiet now settles upon the Earth. Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars. In hours like these, one rises to address history, the ages, and all creation.
This, then, is the task that confronts us.
Section III: Democracy
So it is with this vision that we claim our rightful inheritance to the legacy handed down to us by the great radical thinkers of the past. And thus do we also take up the mantle of democracy once again in opposition to those who would deny it to us. With Jefferson, we swear “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” And with the firebrand Paine, we unflinchingly proclaim that
Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations that preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing from beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all despotisms.
And if this vision of human emancipation seems too unimaginable, too wildly utopian, I have merely to reply that the only more utopian idea is the naïve belief that things will ever change under the present system — that the prevailing order could somehow be reformed through piecemeal legislation within the framework of the existing state.
A word about the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to its august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, and all-absorbing. For the time being, it puts all other tumults to silence. Humanity must do this or effectively do nothing at all. If there is no struggle, there is no progress.
For “democracy” is nothing but the proclaiming and exercising of “rights” that are very little and very conventionally exercised under the present order. But unless these rights are proclaimed and a struggle for their immediate realization waged — and unless the masses are educated in the spirit of such a struggle — emancipation is impossible. This brings into sharpest possible relief the relationship between reform and revolution.
Every freshly drafted legal constitution is but the product of a revolution. Throughout history, revolution has been the act of political creation, while legislation is the political expression of the life of a society that has already been established. In other words, the work of reform does not contain its own force independent from revolution. During each historic period, work for reforms is carried on only by the impetus of the last revolution. Or, to put it more concretely, reforms can only come by way of the institutional scaffolding and state apparatus set in place by the last revolutionary struggle.
These, in turn, invariably reflect the underlying structure of society that sparked this struggle in the first place. From this real basis there arises a legal and political superstructure, along with definite corresponding forms of social consciousness. After reaching a certain level of development, the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the already existing relations of production. An epoch of social revolution commences.
Only after this has taken place can reforms become both lasting and meaningful. Democracy cannot be achieved through cosmetic, incremental alterations to the existing state. Real reform thus presupposes that the basis of society has already been radically transformed. Along with it, this would require a simultaneous reconfiguration of the state.
But all this begs the question: Can a state ever exist without state repression? Or is the state inconceivable apart from servitude and subjection?
History teaches us that the state has always served as an instrument of the domination of the ruling class over the rest of society. It would be folly to think it could act otherwise. So long as the state exists there will be violence. Indeed, it even lays claim to a monopoly on violence (or the use of “legitimate” force). A transitional state may be necessary until society learns to freely govern itself, without recourse to some external body. But the aim of such a state would be its own self-abolition, as its functions become increasingly redundant. After a certain point, this state would simply “wither away” of its own accord — leaving society to democratically pursue its own ends.
The chief object of politics must therefore ultimately be freedom from the necessity of politics; this alone is what makes politics so indispensable today.
Let it be remembered, however, that this journey through history has hardly been a one-way street. The triumph of the human spirit and democracy is by no means guaranteed. For humanity has not just blithely wandered on from victory to victory, along a linear path toward progress. Condorcet wrote his Future Progress of the Human Mind while awaiting the guillotine. History has been made subject to any number of regressions and cycles of recurrence. At best, history can be said to proceed in a cyclolinear fashion, charting a spiral course across the annals of time.
This should serve as both an admonition and a call to arms. For until humanity chooses to transcend the tyranny of the present, unless it seizes the destiny that history has afforded it — we will be doomed to relive all the injustices of the past. If humanity fails to take advantage of the opportunity that lies before it, the same relations of inequality and unfreedom will be reproduced yet again. It will be just as Zarathustra warned:
[We] will return, with this sun, with this earth, with this eagle, with this snake — not to a new life or a better life or a similar life, but to this same and selfsame life…to once again teach the eternal recurrence of all things — to once again speak the word about the great earth of noon and human beings.
“Mais tout cela sera balayé [But all this will be swept away],” André Gide once remarked, unless the cyclical return of the wrong triumphs after all. Humanity’s survival is presently threatened by the very forms of its social constitution, unless humanity’s own global subject becomes sufficiently self-aware to save itself from catastrophe. The possibility of progress, of averting the most extreme calamity, has migrated to this global subject alone.
This idea of historical progress must not, however, be conceived as a movement through homogeneous, empty time, but as a revolutionary chance to fight for the oppressed past — to blast open the continuum of history. For our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. Not only for the sake of our liberated grandchildren, but for the sake of our enslaved ancestors as well, must we carry out this mission. The dead task us. Those yet unborn beseech us. And this is to say nothing of the many who to this day continue to suffer in squalor and destitution. All humanity yearns to be lifted out from under the yoke of oppression.
The fate of the entire world thus hinges upon humanity’s decision. The tired, the hungry, and the impoverished all await the final outcome of our deliberation with bated breath. What will our decision be?