Every revolution, every authentic revolution, promises to redeem the failures of its predecessors. This is what Walter Benjamin thought — or at least, this is what Slavoj Žižek says Benjamin thought at the end of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012). Paraphrasing Benjamin, Žižek says in the film that all the unsettled ghosts of the past will at last find rest in the new freedom born out of the true revolution to come. Yet he warns the path to this freedom comes with no guarantees. There is no train of historical inevitability that can be ridden to the safe harbour of emancipation. Getting there all depends on a fickle crowd of free riders, a ragtag huddle of the flighty and the faithless. They should be a familiar bunch because, it turns out, they are us. Our liberation rests on nobody’s shoulders but our own.
Lend your ear for a moment to the strain of Judgement Day that sounds through Benjamin’s thinking. What ghosts haunt our present? What injustices await deliverance from the purgatory of lost causes? Following Benjamin’s logic, if we want our fight — for a better world, for a livable world, for life itself — to be a successful fight, we had better make sure we know what undead armies stand behind us. Without setting their struggles to rights, they will remain our curse. Plus, there is always the risk that we might fail, and in failing join their ranks, dooming ourselves to wait for the next righteous heave to drag us out of the boneyard and into the future. That is, if a shred of hope for any kind of future — indeed, if the planet itself — survives us.
Of course, to try to list all the neglected wrongs of the past would be a futile exercise. The point here is not to be exhaustive but selective. Some cry out from the dark dungeons of history with more urgency than others. And if you listen closely, you just might recognize something familiar in their voices, even something of your own. True to Benjamin’s thinking, it seems injustice doesn’t die so easy after all.
The first unavenged cause to consider is the cause of democracy. Not just your newscaster’s or your pundit’s democracy but the kind of democracy that reaches beyond the legislature and into the bank, the hospital, the break room, the trading-room floor. Make no mistake: democracy, in the narrow sense of elections and day-to-day political life, is everywhere either broken or threatening to break. Yet at the same time, a deeper erosion is taking place. Before even getting a ballot in your hands, the wind-up toy of politics has determined what kind of candidate you can vote for, and which is off limits. Even more radical candidates, in the rare instances in which they win, face stiff constraints as to what money-power will allow once they are in office.
More and more, it is the interests of private wealth, not of the popular will, that decides the limits of political possibility. The big firms hold the pen that writes the law. The platforms own the means of communication. The oligarchs pull the strings of global finance. Money sloshes back and forth across international boundaries a million times a minute, while human beings pile up at militarized checkpoints only to face deportation, depredation, and death. Calls for a democratic workplace are throttled, and our needy neighbours are left for all-but-dead, while the proprietors of the workplace enjoy the privileges of legal leniency, tax delinquency, and the relief of public funds. There is one rule for the rich and another for the rest. So long as this two-tiered system exists, there can be no true democracy. It will remain a dream of the abstract, ancient past.
A regime of pillage calls out for redress, a regime of world-spanning imperialism. While the last empires seem to have died out by the close of the last century, they did so only in name. Today, there still exists a system of exploitation and expropriation that preys upon the vulnerable from the remove of the wealthy West — or more accurately, the Global North. It is based on the historically entrenched notion of racial and cultural superiority of some, on the one hand, and the expendability of rest, on the other. It deems some resources, and some lives, the justifiable targets of plunder, and a minority living far away its rightful beneficiaries. It is what gives shape to parallel forms of oppression based on the constructions of gender and race in the imperialist, which is to say capitalist, core.
Imperialism is at play when workers paid less than a living wage in, say, Bangladesh make the cheap clothing bought by hard-pressed workers in North America. It is also at play when some, for the simple fact of their class or race or gender, face a disproportionate risk of complication and death when giving birth, for example, in the wealthiest nation on Earth. While the most brutal shape of imperialism has receded from view — the unabashed imperialism of slavery and genocide — it lives on in the hardly subtler forms of coercion, colonialism, apartheid, and debt discipline. Marching hand in hand with the forces aligned against democracy, imperialism — if it is allowed to persist — will ensure that a sane, sustainable world may never come to be.
Once upon a time, it was decided there is a divide separating “Man” from “Nature.” It was deemed the proper place of the former to dominate and despoil the latter. We are living today, as we face the total collapse of the possibility of life on Earth, with the consequences of this ideology when taken to its logical extreme. For centuries, despite all cries of warning, the nonhuman world around us has been treated as a neutral, infinitely renewable fount of exploitable resources. By whom? By the “Man” on the other side of “Nature,” who is no universal human being, but rather a highly particular one: white, wealthy, and male, comfortably inhabiting the cities of the Global North on the backs of legions at the fringes. Only in time did collaborationist counterparts outside his race, gender, and geographical milieu come to crib his method and play his games.
Now, we live in a world crying out for relief. Yet for all the signs pointing towards our doom, we keep on marching along the cusp of the abyss. Even as the word “extinction” becomes part of everyday speech, the forests are razed, the oil is extracted, and the fumes belch forth into the warming air. Sea levels rise, threatening not only property values but the lives of millions. The temperature climbs. The storms get deadlier. The droughts become more frequent and more devastating. The altered climate threatens to unravel everything. Still, we are told there is nothing wrong with the way things are, only there are certain things about it that could be fixed — for the right price tag.
This is the logic of species-level suicide, to say nothing of the plight of other life forms. It is baked into the machinery of capitalism, which runs blind on the inertia of profit. We cannot hope to go on as we have done without bringing on the conditions for our annihilation. We must cut the engine before it is too late. The trouble is, we don’t hold the keys; corporations, their operators, and their enablers in government do. It might be time to consider how we take them for ourselves, and by what means.
Imperialism, democracy’s erosion, the death of nature: these three agents of historical peril are united, like an unholy trinity, in a further, overarching force. That force hardly needs naming: it is capitalism itself. Capital is what seeks to justify plunder at large in the interest of profits at home. It seeks to dismantle any real system of representation, and instead hold the reins of power for itself. It sees as its domain the whole of the Earth, which it will gladly squeeze to exhaustion, its own furtherance be damned. Capital is in it for today and for itself alone. Come tomorrow, if we do nothing to stop it, there may be nothing left for the rest of us. If we do nothing.
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