The “spontaneous” subject – part 2

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Bystanders, May Day NYC Occupy March, 2012. S.Kolbowski

In my last post I touched on the repercussions of Edward Snowden’s placement of his body at the limits of international law and national boundaries. U.S. intellectuals of the left, hackers of no particular political persuasion, off-the-grid libertarians, and political activists might have surmised before his whistleblowing that Americans live in a surveillance state handed over to corporate sub-contractors and pathological venture capitalists. But did even they, not to mention the U.S. population in general, know the exact worthlessness of an American passport, the sham of national sovereignty, and the full extent of America’s authoritarianism and mockery of international law? Snowden allowed all of it to be played out in detail.

I indicated at the end of that post my intention to connect this observation to Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of spontaneous revolution. Below is my argument…please bear with the background material. In the interim, Snowden has been granted a one-year temporary asylum by Russia and Obama has decided to cancel an upcoming summit with Putin because, as he decreed on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show”, Russia keeps insisting on “slipping back into a cold war mentality.” Snubbing your nose at the arbiter of world justice is not part of the American rules of the game. Bolivia’s Morales learned that earlier. Obama will instead make a highly symbolic visit to Sweden, now deemed an important ally, as if to say that at least this country has bowed to our pressure to criminalize whistleblowers.

“Let us avoid any temptation to go back to the ‘origins’. Let us simply pierce a moment in time…”

So starts an early section of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy entitled “The Dilemmas of Rosa Luxemburg.” This influential 1985 book drafts a comprehensive critique of the “essentialism of Marxist thought,” reformulating socialist theories as well as posing concepts of radical democracy. Crucially, Laclau and Mouffe demonstrate in detail why social movements and critiques – of gender and race rights, for example – are as important as those of economic and political categories in challenging elitist power, spelling out the structural architecture that gives these movements their synergetic effects. But the book impressed me most, when I read it in 1990, by questioning the fixed human subject of historical Marxist theories. Resistance to capitalism must have its actors, the formulation of which has been a blind spot of Marxism, one of its main dilemmas. Seen from a contemporary perspective, the human subject of capitalism is clearly not a rational one. Even taking into account historical details, why do populations sometimes rise up against inequity en masse, and sometimes – during extended periods of enormous oppression or suffering – not at all?  Laclau and Mouffe spell it out in different terms, but by bringing psychoanalytic feminism to bear on their critique one can surmise that Marxism and socialism have theorized a problematic conscious subject with free will, who is only lacking information or enlightenment or organization in order to generate resistance. (My critique of Thomas Hirschorn’s “monuments” to philosophers would only begin there…) But regardless of how much enlightenment they receive, the rational subject with free will and without an unconscious is one not projected to engage with or understand a political imaginary. And yet politics exists to a great extent in the realm of the imaginary and the symbolic. The subject is also formed through such discourses. The Laclau and Mouffe argument does not overvalue physical revolt, for good reason. And yet it is hard to ignore the fact that without mass resistance, U.S. politics have moved dramatically to the right.

Hegemony and Socialist Strategy starts by turning to Rosa Luxemburg’s 1906 publication, “The Mass Strike, The Political Party and the Trade Unions.” The authors praise this text for laying out what no socialist tract had been able to do. There are two points they value in this text. One point is that Luxemburg proposes, through observation, that the human subjects of economics and politics (and, by implication, social subjects) need not be exclusive. i.e. there is no pre-existing “working class” revolutionary subject per se. Secondly, the human subjects of economics and politics sometimes come together in unpredictable ways in relation to historical events. So Luxemburg’s theory of spontaneism – spontaneous revolution – acknowledges that, to paraphrase the authors, its logic is a logic of the symbol that sometimes disrupts the literal logic of necessity or pragmatism.

So how does this relate to Mr. Snowden? While the notion of an American mass uprising has become laughable to the American left and liberals, it can certainly be seen at play in quite a few international sites in the recent past or present, where massive uprisings are captured on U.S. media – Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, Libya, Quebec, Greece, Spain, etc. In the U.S., however, those who follow these resistance movements have to wince when reports turn up on political blogs or emails or progressive radio shows touting turnouts of 25 or 200 in response to hugely egregious U.S. state or corporate transgressions.

Perhaps, though, someone like Snowden is a kind of condensed subject of resistance. Beyond the tradition of the whistleblower (although within its legal definition), he rises out of a complex and unpredictable confluence of circumstances – affluent by American standards for a twenty-something; un-educated in conventional terms but highly skilled in technology and with a precocious political intelligence; unaligned with any political stance per se; acutely aware of the timing of social media and the specifics of current power relations, etc.  At the age of 28, and with virtually no investment – in fact, he made a good living by educating himself in the transgressions of the state – he managed to challenge a “masters of the universe” state in a way that no large organized group has been able to do in the U.S. in the last couple of decades. In a period of profound political and cultural distortion and complexity in the U.S., where the average citizen is living a subsistence life and seeking a little solace in distraction, Snowden may have unwittingly become a new kind of subject of spontaneous political revolt.

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