“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.” These words, once penned down by Antonio Gramsci in one of Mussolini's fascist prison cells, have an eerie resonance today. A cursory glance at the news should make it more than clear that we, too, live in a time of monsters.
With the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece, Israel's atrocities in Gaza, the unspeakable brutalities and lightening advances of ISIS, revelations of the NSA's dystopian mass surveillance apparatus, the dramatic militarization of racist police in the United States, and the dangerous geopolitical games now being played out between Russia and the West in the Ukraine, it increasingly begins to look like we are witnessing the early stirrings of a global civil war – a permanent state of emergency in which the value of human life is discounted to zero and the space for emancipatory and democratic politics seems to shrink by the day.
How are we to conceptualize and actualize the radical potential of progressive social movements – let alone the possibility of revolutionary social change – at a time when everything around us seems to regress to a brutal despotism and outright barbarism? If we do find ourselves on the threshold of some kind of dystopian global conflict, how are we, as activists and concerned citizens, to respond to the immense challenges we now face?
The first thing to note is that the monsters, however terrifyingly real and morally reprehensible they are, are ultimately symptoms of a deeper and more fundamental crisis. “This crisis,” Gramsci wrote many years ago, “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” While radical movements need to confront these morbid symptoms head on, they must not – and cannot – compromise on the root causes: the struggle against the dying world of capital and the simultaneous creation of a new world based on democracy and the common must remain at center stage throughout the coming conflict.
Today, the old world is dying because neoliberalism's financialized regime of accumulation and the representative institutions of liberal democracy are having serious trouble reproducing themselves. With capital increasingly dependent on violent state intervention, neo-imperial misadventures, and outright strategies of dispossession in order to sustain a constant flow of accumulation, the democratic pretensions of the political establishment are starting to look more tenuous every day. Existing political institutions have long since ceased to represent anyone but the wealthy – and the world's newly poor, precarious and indebted citizens are rapidly becoming aware of this fact.
At the same time, it is evident that the new world is struggling to be born. Manifestations of a post-capitalist future are emerging all around us, but they remain almost invariably local and temporary in nature. The world has been rocked by spontaneous popular insurrections from Tahrir to Taksim, but the dominant powers have been quick to reassert their constituted order, often in brutal fashion. We are witnessing the emergence of enormously inspiring local experiments in direct democracy and radical autonomy in different countries around the world, but these hopeful initiatives have yet to scale-up to a level where they can constitute a serious threat to the dominant order.
What we have, then, are mostly small and temporary expressions of an as yet unrealized revolutionary potential. Why is it that we are struggling so hard to actualize this potential on a much larger scale? Apart from outright state repression, what is it that is keeping us from constructing the type of radically egalitarian and direct democratic organizational forms that could posit an actual counter-power to – and an eventual replacement of – the dominant capitalist order?
In a previous article, I have argued that we can find at least a partial answer in the nature of the dying neoliberal regime itself. In recent decades, the rise of neoliberalism has led to a thorough atomization of the social fabric, widespread anxiety about the future, and an overwhelming sense of futility in the face of the resilience of the system. As a result, the resistance remains small and fragmented, impotent and ephemeral, divided by endless internal disagreements and internecine squabbles, while most disaffected people understandably prioritize the securing of basic needs over seemingly pointless ideological squabbles and hopeless long-term projects. The possibility of a more or less unified anti-capitalist movement is inhibited by the very logic of neoliberal society.
The main challenges that today's grassroots movements face, then, is to somehow undo the atomization wrought by rampant financialization, growing indebtedness and the precarity of labor; to help reduce the paralyzing anxiety experienced by millions who are caught in the maelstrom of deepening financial and existential insecurity; and to battle the pervasive sense of futility that characterizes an entire generation of alienated and depoliticized youths who should, in fact, be at the forefront of a global revolutionary movement, but who are instead either fighting jihad in Syria or drugging their minds into oblivion at hipster festivals in New York and Berlin.
Only by imbuing this multitude of alienated individuals with a renewed sense of purpose and belonging, only by empowering communities and building broad-based mass movements that can look beyond their own internal differences to recognize their common interest in a collective struggle, and only by restoring hope through the achievement of concrete victories and the construction of actual alternatives, can grassroots movements begin to push back the rising tide of monstrosity and call into being a new social order of universal emancipation and radical democracy. A key issue here, highlighted by Max Haiven and Alex Khasnabish in a recent book, is to rekindle the radical imagination. If we cannot even imagine a better world, how are we to ever build it?
While this may sound a malevolent mischaracterization to some, the inconvenient truth that must be recognized is that the left today remains hopelessly small, sectarian and local in the face of challenges that are almost invariably enormous, systemic and global in scope. We can all agree that the Old Left is dead and that 20th century forms of labor organizing are not coming back, but beyond naïve hopes about the spontaneous coagulation of a few hundred dispersed local experiments in self-organization, no one really seems to have any vision of what must now come in its place. As a result, we are everywhere ceding ground to reformists at best, and monsters at worst.
The greatest risk today is not that the left will somehow lose its ideological purity or betray its democratic principles, but rather that it will fail to scale its ideological conceptions and democratic practices to the level where they can actually make a difference – not just to our own lives, but to those of the seven billion people who inhabit this planet. These difficult questions of scale and organization are all too often ignored for fear of sounding Leninist, but the truth is that libertarian socialist theory and praxis has long tried to grapple with them: from the construction of (and later reflections on) the Paris Commune and Revolutionary Catalonia, to the construction of autonomous communities in Chiapas, Mexico and Kurdish Rojava (Northern Syria), and from the work of early anarchist theorists and left-communists to later contributions by Castoriadis and Bookchin. Why, then, do we seem to be abandoning these questions today?
As long as the left fails to formulate strategies on how to disarm these neoliberal control mechanisms, rekindle the radical imagination, and begin the painstaking construction of a transnational political project oriented around a coherent libertarian socialist vision of scalable democratic self-organization, the ongoing wave of global uprisings and current local experiments in autonomy – however inspiring – will remain little more than that: impotent expressions of outrage and localized experiments in a different way-of-life. But to constitute itself as a genuine threat to the dying world of capital and the monsters it is spawning, the democratic and libertarian left will need to become a lot more ambitious and a lot more organized than it is at present. This is the critical challenge that our movements face in Gramsci's interregnum.
As a friend and fellow activist put it to me after Greece's fascist riot police brutally evicted the occupation of Syntagma Square in Athens, “it is obvious that the days of innocence are over.” If we are to stand any chance of victory, whatever that may mean, it is high time to shed our innocence and get organized. Dark clouds are gathering on the horizon. A divided and unorganized left will be all too easily defeated.
Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine.