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Should We Be Revolutionaries?

March 2, 2012, 2:09 PM
Should%20we%20be%20revolutionaries

What if everyday life as I know it is irredeemably complicit in injustice? If this is the case, then does justice not demand that everyday life be overturned? These are haunting questions, particularly given the premise of this blog: that it is worth attuning oneself to what is sanctified in everyday life. Where everyday life is fundamentally distorted by injustice, sin, or falsehood, its sanctification is the worst kind of ideological reinforcement. 

Some version of these questions began to trouble me in adolescence. In college I learned how to describe the problem in terms of anxiety about false-consciousness. Marx, Freud, Sartre, the Frankfurt School, whatever their differences, can cumulatively heighten distrust of the everyday. There is a Prophetic strain in Jewish thought that functions corroboratively (and sometimes integrally) with these kinds of views, too. It incites indignation toward our shattered vessel of a world and obligates us to fix it: nothing is yet as it should be and we are the ones responsible. The Prophetic passion for justice is powerful and adds to my concern.     

And this is just the beginning. Many varieties of individuals and social movements have forcefully renounced, denigrated, or distrusted the world as it most often appears, in the mundane, the quotidian – this world by contrast to the next or some other. Indeed, theorists of an “axial age” suggest that a set of world-historical cultural breakthroughs occurred in the mid to late first millennium B.C.E. in ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India that severed presumptive legitimacy from the world as it is given, forevermore.

Fear of complicity in injustice, like a magnet, attracts all manner of theorizing. The hope is to find some sure footing from which to interpret the current state of affairs and derive clear imperatives. It is at this point that the question arises: should we be revolutionaries? 

For the purposes of the present post, answering “yes” means accepting a theory about moral responsibility that wholly rejects and demands a radical departure from everyday life. Answering “no” means accepting a theory about moral responsibility that embraces and builds its demands from what already seems important and good in everyday life. (This is not, obviously, the only way to talk about revolution. It is just the way that I want to talk about it at this moment).

Before I give my own answer, I have to answer the prerequisite question that I have avoided: what exactly does “everyday life” refer to? Everyday life refers to the fullness of a human life that is not streamlined to exclude parts of life that are unwelcome in any particular sphere of life. Let me explain. 

In the professional sphere of life, for instance, there is a way to present oneself as a lawyer, waiter, scholar, etc. In each case there are professional virtues that one might strive to embody and basic standards of professionalism. There are roles to play and scripts to follow. Distinct expectations of how one ought to present oneself are among the defining features of a distinctive sphere of life. 

Everyday life, on the other hand, includes all of life’s spheres and also the stuff between the spheres. It is undifferentiated: it includes your professional life, but also you, exhausted and disoriented, waking up in the morning, staring at yourself stupidly in the mirror while brushing your teeth, sitting vulnerably on a public toilet, fidgeting in ill fitting pants on the subway, lying on your side in bed, eyes open, mind contorted with stress, gazing, waiting for sleep.

It also includes all of the people who are invisible in the office, at organizational meetings, panel discussions, late night coffee shops, and other places where people qua professionals, activists, and intellectuals deliberate in their prime. Everyday life includes infants, toddlers, teenagers, aged ailing parents, loved ones who have severe physical impairments or are terminally ill. In the context of everyday life, no matter which sphere we’re in, we are always still worrying about, missing, feeling frustrated by the vulnerable people that we love.           

Of course, everyday life also includes the myriad idiosyncratic fantasies, rituals, and things that are of profound importance to a person – though these may be largely unknown to others, even to one’s intimates, carried around like a secret, and impossible to justify or clearly explain. (See my last post). 

The common denominators of everyday life are vulnerability, dependence, and frustration, along with the goodness of rest, fun, thriving in some challenging or distinctive way, loving, and being loved. Choosing revolution means that all of this can be dismissed as bourgeois, pathetic, decadent. The revolutionary, eventually, is ready to exploit vulnerability, dependence, and frustration. Eventually, all that is good can be attacked, humiliated, or destroyed if this is deemed necessary in the pursuit of his ideal. Revolution is, in the end, for revolutionaries – for people sufficiently shorn of everyday life that they can manifest the revolution. The shearing is what gets bloody.           

This is not in any way to discourage vigorous collective political action. Nothing could be farther from my intention. Sometimes it is necessary to fill the streets with everyday life. But recognition of what people need and treasure in everyday life ought to be the basis of such efforts, and of social criticism, not the target. The temptation of revolution, as a response to anxiety about false-consciousness, leads away from this kind of constructive politics.  

Thus, we should not be revolutionaries. We should, instead, be advocates for the flourishing of everyday people.

 

Should We Be Revolutionaries?

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