My impression at the time of the September 11th 2001 attacks was that the surface of the world had been forced to open up in a long weighty fissure, but was ready to close shut really hard. The revolutionary drive from that was the more complete takeover of U.S. public policy and public agency by the military and military intelligence.
But further back in time, the collapse of the Soviet empire from 1989-1991 felt like developed society had successfully absorbed a long political sickness into itself to let itself gradually recover. The revolutionary drive there was to neuter the entire modernist political drive of the left across Europe – apparently permanently.
But even further back in time than that, for those who can remember the early 1980s, and New Zealand’s great cresting wave of feminism, Maori land rights, the peace movement, anti-racist movements, and ecology, it felt like we had successfully reinterpreted all that United States and British forms of liberation and turned it into something specific to us. The revolutionary legacy of that has been the most important legislative and political shifts in our society since the Depression.
Each apparent rip in the fabric of the world generates its own space, with its own time limit, volume, malleability, and texture to name and operate within.
Bernie Sanders has been using the phrase “political revolution” when to the United States’ own historical mind that means bloody and protracted war. It is now a phrase and a man cruelly out of step with political fate.
In this particular moment of March 2020, the space of revolution we are left with is so small as to be more of the scale of a personal piety than a societal change. That state has acted with utmost speed to sustain the whole of society, and on such a scale that the rebuild of Christchurch from the 2010-2016 earthquakes is just a pallid practise run.
There are no marches this time. No manifestos: just official public policy statements and official public debt. No need for thought when the state has thought it all through for us, and installed and executed it in a deepening series of managed authoritarian moves.
This makes right now one of the most conservative historical moments I can think of. I’m not complaining; reforming political forces have long since run out of steam, so the natural instinct is to preserve that which the left has gained for society as long as possible. And I sure ain’t complaining about the Prime Minister’s leadership.
We are by collective will an collective force now synchronized for national preservation for the remainder of the year at least. The scale of the national effort in infrastructure, and the full collapse of tourism as our largest industry, means that this moment forcefully defines our destiny for several decades.
In some other parallel revolutionary moment we would have the spare time to turn off the television and devices, turn across the fence to our neighbours and engage as if the entire industrial world had just rapidly de-accelerated, learn new hobbies and plant seeds like they meant something. We had the actual human width to learn life again. We could walk the streets as free people with free time.
That was the kind of moment the French engaged with during the general strike of 1968. Even without retrieving the bundle of yellowed newspapers from the top shelf of the University of Auckland archives, it is easy to re-imagine the night of May 10th 1968 in Paris.
As the riots calmed and May turned to June, workers and students won some changes. The elections swept de Gaulle and his supporters back into power. For two astonishing weeks in May, an entire nation had been caught up in a frenzy of self-examination. There were no newspapers or schools or even much work or the rubbish collected, or indeed much at all of daily repetitive life. Committees were formed to restructure secondary schooling, the university, the film industry, the theatre, the news media.
The objectives were self-management by workers, a decentralization of economic and political power, and participatory democracy at the grass roots. The effect was like a spanner stopped the machine of the world and the French could see things again, afresh.
The great fear was that contemporary state-managed capitalism was capable of absorbing any and all critical ideas or movements and bending them to its own advantage. “Be realistic: demand the impossible!”, was the slogan that sought to shock the establishment beyond its absorptive capacity. This was what the French Frankfurt Marxist herbert Marcuse wrote in his 1972 book “Counterrevolution and Revolt”. He was seeking to define a moment of the left that conserved reformation even as the gates of the world shut hard again. Absorb it did.
This is certainly not one of those moments.
Maybe this current moment will – as it did during the oil crisis – push a few survivalists into the peripheral countryside.
It’s more likely that there is no space in 2020 for any kind of revolution at all. Not even a moments’ personal growth.
This is not the revolution.