Simon Critchley: What Is Normal?

The surprising power of the political imagination.

Nick Whalen

Audio version read by George Atherton – Right-click to download

We are living through a dramatic and ever-widening separation between normal state politics and power. Many citizens still believe that state politics has power. They believe that governments, elected through a parliamentary system, represent the interests of those who elect them and that governments have the power to create effective, progressive change. But they don't and they can't.

We do not live in democracies. We inhabit plutocracies: government by the rich. The corporate elites have overwhelming economic power with no political accountability. In the past decades, with the complicity and connivance of the political class, the Western world has become a kind of college of corporations linked together by money and serving only the interests of their business leaders and shareholders.

This situation has led to the disgusting and ever-growing gulf that separates the superrich from the rest of us. State politics in the West in the past four decades has become a machine for the creation of gross inequality whose patina is an ideology of ever-more vapid narcissism. As the Eurozone crisis eloquently shows, state politics in the West simply exists to serve the interests of capital in the form of international finance, which exerts a human cost that Marx could never have imagined in his wildest dreams. No matter how much people suffer and protest in the street, it is said, we must not upset the bankers. Who knows, our credit rating might drop.

It is time to take politics back from the political class through confrontation with the power of finance capital. What is so inspiring about the various social movements that we all too glibly call the Arab Spring, is their courageous determination to reclaim autonomy and political self-determination. The demands of the protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere are actually very classical: they refuse to live in authoritarian dictatorships propped up to serve the interests of Western capital, corporations and corrupt local elites. They want to reclaim ownership of the means of production, for example through the nationalization of major state industries.

The various movements in North Africa and the Middle East – and one is simply full of admiration for their individual and collective courage and peaceful persistence – aim at one thing: autonomy. They demand collective ownership of the places where one lives, works, thinks and plays. Let's be clear: it is not just democracy that is being demanded all across the Arab world; it is socialism. And the tactics that have been developed to bring it about are anarchist.

There is a deeply patronizing view of these protests – common among Western politicians and their intellectual epigones – namely that they want what we have: the liberal democracy and neoliberal economics of our fine regimes. On the contrary, the movements in North Africa and the Middle East should be held up as a shining example for European and North American societies of what suddenly seems not only possible, but increasingly probable: that another way of conceiving and practicing social relations is not just possible, it is practicable.

Politicians in the West should be scared, very scared. The clock is running down. What we see emerging across our societies with increasing boldness, coherence and clarity are movements that refuse the separation of politics and power and who want to take power back through the invention of new forms of political activism.

It is in this spirit that I'd like to celebrate and congratulate the protesters in the Wall Street occupations and their followers all around the world.

We should not predict the future, but I think we are entering into a period of increasingly massive social dislocations and disorder which harbors within it countless risks, dialectical inversions, defeats, dangers, false dawns and fake defeats. But I think we are all coming to the powerful and simple realization that human beings acting peacefully together in concert can do anything – and nothing can stop them.

Something is happening. Something is shifting in the relations between politics and power. We don't know where it will lead, but the four-decade ideological consensus that has simply allowed the creation of grotesque inequality has broken down, and anything and everything is suddenly possible. What we require now is solidarity, persistence and the endlessly surprising power of the political imagination.

Simon Critchley is a professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He has authored over a dozen books including the celebrated Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance in which he argues for an ethically committed political anarchism.