Special Reports / What’s that thing called democracy?

Decapitating a many-headed Hydra: how to finish a revolution?

Joanna Kusiak · 27 December 2011
A call for papers was recently announced by Harvard University with a slick question as the topic for the conference: “How to finish a revolution?” This question is posed at the end of a year in which many unfinished revolutions took place: mass protests, occupations, and rallies, turning one after another into media events. 2011 unfolded according to seasons of protests: the Arab Spring was followed by a European Summer (which honestly should not be limited to Europe—recall the protests…

For a moment it seemed that winter would cool down the protesters’ zeal when, for many quite unexpectedly, demonstrators appeared on the streets of a city where the biting cold makes not the slightest impression on anyone: Moscow. Although it is too early to tell, we may have just entered the Russian Winter. The problem is that all these protests seem to end just like the seasons do—they pass. While for years it was believed that in countries such as Egypt and Libya protests could never occur because of state repression (or in the U.S. because of individualism and consumerism), 2011 can be called a year of newly launched but uncompleted revolutions. Seeing that currents events have provided an answer to the question “How to start a revolution?,” reasonable and pragmatic Harvard scholars have posed a new question: How to finish a revolution?

Finding answers to questions (political as well as scientific), is an essential element of the construct known in the West by the proud name of “knowledge society”. According to the old philosophical logic, the difference between knowledge and wisdom is that knowledge consists in a set of responses (which more or less popular sophists were always ready to deliver), while wisdom (represented by Socrates) is the ability to pose really good questions. A really good philosophical question can be recognized by the fact that regardless of whether or not we can give an answer to it, it fundamentally changes the way we look at the answers that have already been given. The knowledge society is not necessarily a wisdom society and it might in fact be quite a foolish one. Contemporary educational systems as well as the media shape the political debate in a way that promotes answers similar to those give on TV quiz shows: fast, witty and in line with the existing rules of the game.

The most serious accusation against Spanish “indignados” and American “occupiers” was their refusal to provide concrete answers. The protesters concentrated on questioning, which is probably the most philosophical part of political activism, and by doing so radically changed the language of public debate. The most interesting intellectual activity in all the seasons of 2011 was to observe how certain issues, concepts, ideas, and events moved from the domain of mere political speculation to the realm of ordinary conversation at the kitchen table and in subway stations. And yet, after a hundred days of the occupation and several thousand arrests, after many hours of general meetings and full days of discussions and, finally, after numerous police actions evicting occupation camps from public spaces of American cities, the mood among occupiers is like the mood on a still ship: we are in the middle of a lake, nobody wants to paddle back to the shore but the wind has somehow stopped blowing in the sails. Not only does nobody know the answers, but we do not seem even to know how to begin responding to the revolutionary question, “What is to be done?”.

Actually, there are a number of tempting replies, but none of them seem plausible or even thinkable within the limits of existing system, and so we think them quietly, knowing that there is less reason in them than imagination (and imagination was never highly prized in the knowledge society, so that we who imagine are a bit ashamed). Get rid of Wall Street? Cancel all public debts? Eliminate credit rating agencies and financial markets? Put bankers on trial? Introduce a guaranteed income everywhere? Dispose of all politicians and replace them by lottery? Most of potential responses either fall into the category of political fiction (like during the Cold War it was a political fiction to imagine the Eastern bloc collapsing), or else are completely unsatisfactory. The fantastic character of the first lies in the fact that there is no group and no state with the power to implement them, while incompleteness of the latter in the fact that implementing them in one country would be simply quixotic. For example, though many people readily agree that the enormous power of credit rating agencies is illegitimate and extremely harmful, no government has the courage to publicly announce that it will disregard their demands and not make any further painful cuts. The huge disappointment with Obama was caused by the fact that his “Yes, we can” turned out to be limited only to what was allowed by Wall Street financiers and global capitalist networks. While history knows stories of the successful decapitation of tyrants and dictators, the decapitation of a many-headed Hydra still remains in the domain of mythology.

In the absence of meaningful answers, it would be easy to ignore the newly instigated revolutions if it wasn’t for their unique coincidence in time—after years without protests they keep erupting one after another in totally unexpected places and even if they are populist, they’re not xenophobic: the universal dimension of challenges we face is highlighted and rather than “outsiders” (e.g. immigrants) the system itself is blamed. If, as Susan Buck-Morss claims, the essence of political thinking lies in being able to capture novelty in a world where we think that everything has already happened, the question concerning the end of the revolution seems to be premature or simply ill-posed, because it refers to the perspective of particular revolutionary events rather than their universal significance. If the question of “How to finish a revolution?” is to be truly revolutionary, the most appropriate answer should be “Do not finish, but properly start”. It’s easy enough to imagine a history book from the future in which the year 2011 figures as the beginning of the beginning, and the end only coming twenty or fifty years later. If the global system requires a new, global kind of revolution, the question about the end must be replaced by the question of the beginning: how particular protests may contribute to building global solidarity and how to synchronize the revolutionary timeline; how to feed the revolutionary fire during many coming seasons in which—hopefully—more revolutions will be started.

The answer may lie in combining the various strategies of action presented in the interviews published in today’s “Liberal Culture”: the strategy of the philosopher and that of an activist. When asking great questions about what seems impossible today, we should also do everything possible to legitimize them by everyday actions, small but arduous struggles for the well-being of particular individuals and societies. So instead of New Year’s resolutions for 2012 I propose a political-philosophical exercise: on December 31st think with all the power of your imagination on the one thing that you would like to change in your city, in the political system, or in your politics (even if it seems impossible) and then tell ten people about it. Five of them will probably not believe it but together with the other five try to do three things which with a little bit of effort can be accomplished and which will make that first great thing just a tiny little bit more possible.