Saturday, October 22, 2011
On demands posted by Richard SeymourOur own bat020 on this presently fraught subject six years ago:
...if we admit the possibility of a non-hysterical demand by the popular masses – a slogan, let us say – what would it look like? Here I'd suggest that the answer lies in the direct converse to the famous (and eminently hysterical) situationist graffito "Be realistic, demand the impossible!". Rather than formulate realistic but impossible demands, our "demands" must be unrealistic but nevertheless possible. And moreover they should be addressed diagonally, ie to both the ruling elite and the popular movement simultaneously, or more precisely, they should formally pose a demand addressed to the elite, but actually raise a slogan that engages and resonates with the movement – mobilising it and thereby subjectivating it from within.
A neat example of this was provided by an Independent front page last week. It was dominated by a table whose columns listed four "options" for the future of British troops in Iraq: what the option was, its pros and cons, who was calling for it and what its likelihood was. The leftmost column was "troops out now", called for by the Stop the War Coalition – and likelihood of this happening was, in the Independent's eyes – nil.
But while calling for troops out now is certainly "unrealistic" within the framework of bourgeois politics, it is nevertheless clearly possible – nothing in principle prevents it from happening. And it is the very raising of this demand from the radical left that has exacerbated divisions in the elite about what to do re Iraq. The demand forces its own possibility and reconfigures the frame of what is considered "realistic". One only need recall that prior to Stop the War demanding troops out now, the question of withdrawal from Iraq was never openly discussed in the bourgeois media – why, to even entertain the possibility would be Giving In To Terrorism... now we are treated to the bizarre spectacle of Simon Jenkins calling for rapid withdrawal, with a string of MI6 "experts" in tow!
But more important than this slogan's effects on the ruling elite, its exacerbation of a "crack in the big Other", is the mass political subjectivity that emerges through this crack. "Troops out now!" acts as a rallying point for anyone repulsed by the lies and prevarication that have characterised Blair's imperialist theatrics. But it simultaneously consolidates the anti-war movement, forcing all those involved to discern where our power lies, what our strengths are, and how we can rely on those strengths and powers instead of those of any putative Master figure.
One final example, this one taken from Bolshevik lore. It was June 1917 and Kerensky had formed a provisional government that included the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries – but also representatives of the capitalist parties such as the Cadets. The Bolsheviks refused to join such a government. But what was their demand/slogan to be? Their choice was "Down with the ten capitalist ministers!" – and Trotsky later explained the rationale behind this choice:
The enormous role of the Bolshevik slogan "Down with the ten capitalist ministers!" is well known, in 1917, at the time of the coalition between the conciliators and the bourgeois liberals. The masses still trusted the socialist conciliators but the most trustful masses always have an instinctive distrust for the bourgeoisie, for the exploiters and for the capitalists. On this was built the Bolshevik tactic during that specific period. We didn't say "Down with the socialist ministers!", we didn't even advance the slogan "Down with the provisional government!" as a fighting slogan of the moment, but instead we hammered on one and the same point: "Down with the ten capitalist ministers!" This slogan played an enormous role, because it gave the masses the opportunity to learn from their own experience that the capitalist ministers were closer and dearer to the conciliators than the working masses.
The precision of this slogan is astonishing. It cuts like a chisel at a fracture that only an understanding of class struggle allows one to discern. It acts simultaneously as a populist demand and a mobilising slogan. It separates those who are willing to fight from those who are not, to use one of Trotsky's characterisations of the united front. And it is a model for what our response should be to the obscure face-off between popular movements and liberal political elites that increasingly characterises this conjuncture.