By Jason Bell
In his 1960 “Letter to the New Left,” C. Wright Mills called the work of Leftist politics “utopian” because it imagined transcendent alternatives to institutional structures. For Mills, utopianism meant simply that which was momentarily impossible. Five decades ago, an apocalypse of liberal politics not only activated the possibility of utopian thought but in fact demanded it.
Rebecca Solnit’s appearance in the conversation series, “Apocalypse Now: End Time and the Contemporary Imaginary” coincided with the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. Not surprisingly then, the talk gravitated towards liberal activism and away from its nominal topic. Solnit’s work on the aesthetics and politics of the apocalypse has redefined our discourse on disasters, and so it is unfortunate that the conversation rarely brought apocalyptic traditions and the Occupy movement into proximity. Rather, the conversation contextualized Solnit’s activism—anti-nuclear, anti-war, pro-Occupy, and otherwise—in the larger narrative of her intellectual career. Solnit learned to write while protesting nuclear test sites, where she would walk about, doing nothing other than thinking. Walking and the American West have become fixations of Solnit’s work, as in books like Wanderlust: A History of Walking and River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological West. Even in these comparatively apolitical works, however, Solnit formulates a general if implicit theory of political activism, one centered on the strength of democratic communities. Judging from the conversation last Tuesday night, Solnit believes that political activity—organized rebellion against perceived inequality—is a prerequisite to an ethical life. Occupy Wall Street thus constitutes a profound expression of an ideal, perhaps utopian, democratic ethos.
“To refuse to engage in politics is to endorse the status quo,” Solnit said on Tuesday night. Solnit’s slogan figures politics itself as a utopia, a place where revolutionary spirit meets injustice head-on. Solnit imagines politics as pure dialectic, wherein the Left and liberal activism stand in opposition to a presumably conservative status quo. For Solnit, politics means Leftist, liberal, activist politics, because any other ideological formula would violate her maxim. Occupy Wall Street therefore represents a political ideal: it practices politics as unadulterated ideological opposition.
Yet, to engage in politics is not necessarily to reject the status quo, and a refusal to engage in politics can be a refusal to endorse the status quo. Once the status quo has incorporated “engagement in politics” into its logic, Solnit’s assumptions disintegrate. At this point, all conventional engagements in politics circle back to a single ideological starting point. (Presuming that Leftist and liberal activism actually endorses the status quo.) If the Occupy movement is a proverbial -and completely non-partisan- elephant in the room, we remain too close for impartial analysis. The sum of the movement has not, probably for the better, been written into history. Nevertheless, we can ask, in perfect fairness, whether traditional forms of political activity, oppositional or radical, can still serve as sites of resistance to the status quo.
The question is not whether policy demands (or the lack thereof) are different than the status quo. They almost always are. The question is of political practice, specifically, whether “politics as activism” successfully evades or escapes from the containment of its institutional setting. As Stephen Greenblatt wrote so succinctly in “Resonance and Wonder,” it is not that all sites of resistance are coopted, but rather that “some are, some aren’t.” It is my contention that politics, and especially Solnit’s idea of “politics as activism,” is one such site of resistance that has been coopted.
On some level of intersection, activism of any species confronts the realities of (post-industrial) capitalism. Whether facing down nuclear militarism, AIDS, or the financial sector, activists bump up against the infinite pervasiveness of capitalism’s logic. The confrontation of New Left activism and capitalism is the object of Mills’s thesis: the seeming impossibility of General Strike or an overturning of capitalism in the West demands utopian thinking. Jean Baudrillard presents a challenge to both Mills and Solnit in his essay on “Ventriloquous Evil,” where he cites the Banque Nationale de Paris’s advertising slogan, “Your money interests me!” Baudrillard claims:
…what was new and scandalous was having these words come direct from the bankers themselves, the truth coming straight from the mouth of Evil, so to speak. The truth came straight from the mouth of the dominant power itself, and that power, secure in the knowledge of its total immunity, admitted its ‘crime’ quite openly.
In Baudrillard’s analysis, “the truth has been stolen by an ‘arrogant’ discourse that thwarts any form of criticism by short-circuiting it. The real scandal doesn’t lie so much in technocratic cynicism as in the breaking of a rule of our social and political game. . .the ritual mechanism of critical condemnation is taken from us.” When capitalism speaks its own criticism, what space remains for oppositional activism of any kind, at least conducted under the auspices of politics? Political activism occurs on the terms of the enemy, which makes criticism a kind of make-believe. Utopian thought, or the post of the post-apocalypse, has been stripped of its potency. Occupations of utopian and post-apocalyptic spaces have become theatrical performances, child-like and exhausted of either seriousness or satire. Democratic vistas, the stages of such vaudevilles, are no longer the battlegrounds of dissensus. Democratic politics is empty consensus; the activist is always left nodding in agreement with the institution that has ventriloquized its opposition.
What then is the alternative to activism? Certainly not politics, which has come to mean nothing other than monism. Ironically, today, the most political act has become a refusal: to refuse politics is to refuse a status quo that has coopted politics as an instrument of conservatism. It is the refusal to acknowledge politics as “the only way” which opens new spaces for resistance that operate outside our known vocabularies of liberalism and conservatism. The altogether refusal of politics is what Baudrillard refers to as a “strange, non-political, non-dialectical, elusive No. . .It is a No that isn’t the opposite of a Yes (the No of the things that can exist without their opposites), but might be said to be closer to a silent rejection. . .” Baudrillard compares the non-political No to Bartleby’s announcement in Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby’s refusal is not an affirmation of nihilism or an advocacy of total meaninglessness and futility. Instead, Bartleby chooses to affirm a principle of non-meaning—to resist the inscription of meaning onto his body, his behavior, his spirit, and finally, his soul.
If an apocalypse occurred in political activism circa 1960, it has failed to produce “a paradise built in Hell,” the title of Solnit’s book on “the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster.” Indeed, communities of resistance coalesced in the wake of the liberal apocalypse, most recently, the Occupy movement. But these communities inhabit spaces that their enemies colonized long ago. To bring about the opposition that Occupy or any modern political movement intends, the field of politics must be abandoned. We require non-political technologies and discourses to tear down politics itself.
Jason Bell is a Columbia College senior majoring in English. He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Columbia Review and a columnist for the Columbia Daily Spectator.