in Failure

Must it get worse? And if it must, what then?

And when the fascists lock the city down
And the riot police gather all around
Will we laugh, will we laugh, will we laugh?
That once we romanticized
And we practically fucking fantasized
About the downfall of a city

About the downfall of a country
About the downfall of a lifetime

~ Hawksley Workman, Ilfracombe
Lately, I’ve been thinking about Marxist and other Left-leaning criticisms of capitalism. A common theme within many of these criticisms, is that capitalism must get worse before our situation can get better. Stated in a little more detail, this assertion is based upon the observation that, although capitalism is already causing horrendous amounts of damage to people and places around the globe, that damage (and the unredeemable nature of the capitalist system which causes the damage) is not yet apparent, or directly and overtly experienced as violence by enough people. This then is a part of the reason why ‘the workers’ (certainly a contested category today!) have not yet thrown off their chains and risen up, en masse, to overthrow their masters.
Consequently, what you then find in some Marxist-inspired thinking, is the suggestion that we should accelerate the worsening of capitalism, rather than prematurely attempting to resist capitalism — for all too frequently our efforts to resist capitalism simply end up becoming a necessary part of the sustenance thereof (I believe that I have come across this idea in the writings of Jean Baudrillard and of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, although I may have forgotten some others who discuss it).
Now, what I have not seen is many (or any?) suggestions on how we actually go about participating in the worsening of capitalism. However, it seems to me that, in general, the notion that things must get worse before they can get better functions as something of an implicit justification of the affluence and privilege granted to ‘radical’ intellectuals. Thus, the radical thinker, the one who criticises capitalism and calls for its exorcism, is also able to be centred in places of power and comfort and enjoy all the benefits that capitalism has to offer.  Such a thought can be used to justify or even promote the passivity of the radical intellectual — ‘I am helping things get worse (by remaining in my place of power and privilege), that that things can get better’ and so on.
However, in actuality, it seems to me that this (rather common) line of thinking actually serves as a powerful justification for the violent actions performed by people like Timothy McVeigh or Mohamed Atta.
After all, Timothy McVeigh was a veteran of the first American invasion of Iraq.  Horrified by what he say — the senseless deaths of civilians, women and children — McVeigh tried to bring that horror closer to home so that America would realise that true nature of her acts, repent, and change her ways.  Surely this is a classic example of a person deliberately worsening a situation in order to try and improve it.  Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out the way McVeigh desired.
The same line of thinking applies to Mohamed Atta and the other hijackers involved in the events that occurred in the United States on September 11, 2001.  Again, we have a violent act performed on behalf of the oppressed, and performed against a powerful symbol of American imperial and economic power.  However — setting aside the fact that civilians were attacked (while duly noting that civilians are always attacked in wars, and are always the ones who suffer the most when any major military operations occur) — this attack has often been condemned, even by others who resist imperialism and economic brutality, because of the fruit which it bore.  Rather than causing America to withdraw its forces from military bases around the world (like those in Saudi Arabia), that events of September 11, 2001 caused America to increase her military presence around the world (and caused other brutal powers to do the same, using ‘the war on terror’ as a handy ideological tool to strike at old enemies and rivalries).
Therefore, many on the post-Marxist Left have eschewed this form of violent resistance precisely because it produces this sort of result.  Yet this strikes me as a fundamental inconsistency in their thinking.  If things must get worse before they get better, than it seems to me that this is exactly the sort of action that the Left should be encouraging.  Yes, there are brutal consequences to be suffered — especially by the poor and powerless — but the demon of capitalism must be drawn out of its hiding place and revealed in its full brutality before the people will rise up to overthrow it.  If things must get worse, before they get better, than we must race to the bottom so that we can rise to the top.
Now, thank God, I don’t actually agree with this way of thinking.  There are a few good historical reasons for rejecting this way of thinking: (1) looking back, I think that capitalism has shown us that is incredibly good at gaining strength as it worsens; and (2) looking forward, should some major crisis occur within capitalism — say the collapse of the global market — leading to the downfall of capitalism, the future seems to promise some sort of renewed feudalism or imperium, and not anything more hopeful or ideal than that which we had with capitalism.  Consequently, I think that when we commit to worsening a situation (in order to make things better in the future), the end result is actually just a worsened situation.  Full stop.  (This is why I included the lyrics from Hawksley Workman at the beginning of this post — we fantasize about the downfall of capitalism and its power brokers, but when that downfall occurs, we might still be in bondage to oppressive powers.)
A good example of how this works out is found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s participation in the attempt to assassinate Hitler.  Bonhoeffer penitently committed to perform evil, with the hopes that good would come… but the plot failed and the result was that Hitler became even more certain that he was sheltered by divine protection.  Thus, rather then heeding the advice of his generals, backing off, and cutting German (and other) losses, Hitler pressed on to total devastation (as did the Allies, for example when they needlessly fire-bombed Dresden, not to mention the fire-bombing of Tokyo and other civilian targets in Japan… bit I digress).
Similarly, I believe that the cycle of violence is endless.  Violence, even when employed with good intentions, always begets more violence.  There is no hope for salvation found within that cycle.
What, then, are we to do?  If we are to heed the warning that our current efforts to ‘resist’ capitalism, simply end up affirming it (this, I think, is often a true criticism of both ‘counter-cultural’ and ‘charitable’ efforts) but if we are not to accelerate the worsening of capitalism, what options do we have?
I would say that we have two mutually complimentary options.  The first is to genuinely participate in the groanings of creation, and the cries of the oppressed.  In particular, we are to enter into those cries, so that we also know what it is that causes the poor to cry out, and we are then to direct those cries to heaven, so that God can hear our groanings, look upon our sufferings, remember his covenant with us, and come down to act on our behalf (cf. Ex 2.23-25 and what follows for an exposition of this).  Ultimately, our hopes for liberation — from capitalism, from its power brokers, and from all other historical powers operating in the service of Sin and of Death — are totally dependent upon the action of God.  So we cry out to God and we long for an apocalyptic event — the in-breaking of God’s Sprit of Life into history.
Second, I think that we heed the advice of Žižek  and, to the best of our abilities, attempt to embody, or bring about, the change that we seek — even now when that change is impossible.  This is not something we do  acritically.  We must be aware of the impotency of most traditional avenues of change (say voting), and of most traditional counter-cultural avenues of change (say protesting),  but our awareness of these things — and of our own hopelessness — should not prevent us from attempting to act creatively or from experimenting with new modes of resistance.   After all, these actions are a part  of our groanings — they are the embodiment thereof.  The function as something of a liturgical dance, putting action and motion and even some sort of beauty into the groans we can articulate in no other ways.  Or, to use another example, this is how we finger death, even as it kills us.
Perhaps, then, it is up to us to try and fail, until the time when God takes heed of us, of our brokenness and of all our failed efforts, and comes down to save us.  It is our role to fail so that those who come after us can taste the salvation of God.  Should we shirk this role, perhaps that salvation will not come.
Maranatha.  Our Lord, come.

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  1. The oppressed are nowhere near throwing off their chains. I think that this is the biggest challenge for thinkers on the Left.
    Post-marxists and radical democrats have tried to pin their hopes to an improbale “multitude”, but it sounds even more wafly than the original.
    Ultimately, the only thing I believe in is solidarity. The solidarity that is present in people but which they don’t have the guts to enact, and they don’t have the role models. The solidarity which makes people wish they were mother Theresa. I say just do it, or as you would have it: this, then, is the life abundant.
    When I was teaching a class on urban poverty last spring, we asked the students to compare Mike Davis’ “planet of slums” with the review by Tom Angotti. Angotti objected to the big Marxist metanarratives which reduce the poor to a shapeless mass. Instead, he delves in, and sees the incredible cohesion and solidarity in these “slum” communities. This certainly echoes what I have seen first hand in Penalolen and in Moldova.
    There, what is needed is not so much cries towards heaven. Just be you old normal self but help people out as you go. There, your good luck is other people’s good luck. Theirs is yours too. And capitalism usually still provides a job or two, with an income that gets shared between a lot of people.
    I suspect that part of the reason you feel like crying out towards heaven is the right thing to do is that you have been exposed to *a lot* of poverty made worse by drug addiction and abuse of all sorts. The one I’ve encountered was not particularly traumatic for anyone. No addiction. no abuse. Just lack of resources. And so I still think that Latin American base communities are the best thing since sliced bread.
    There’s the link to Angotti, if you have time:

  2. Isn’t it also ironic that the “post-Liberal Left” uses the capitalistic system to get their message out? They don’t seem to mind cashing the royalty checks 🙂