The New Realism: Voyage of an Epigraph from Paris to Oakland
What is crucial: to transcend without transcending.
- Ernst Bloch
In the 20th Century, real socialism failed. In the 21st Century, unreal capitalism.
- Luis Eduardo Aute
In those heady early days of the Oakland Commune when the little village of newly-dubbed “Oscar Grant Plaza” was being set up, an old comrade who had been part of the early organizing of the occupation was walking through the village and describing it to me on his cell phone. We were doing relay reporting: I’d been down the day before and reported back to him, now he was giving me an update. “And just past the media tent and the library is the supply tent . . . ” A young woman working at the supply tent jumped into the conversation and began to show him where things went as my friend explained that he was giving a comrade a “virtual tour” of sorts.
“Over here you drop off clothes; there is where you drop off food; tents and camping supplies go over there…”
“And money?” my friend asked. He had been carrying a $5 bill in his hand, money someone had given him to pass on to the camp.
“Oh. We don’t do money,” she replied.
“’We don’t do money!’ ‘We don’t do money!’” my friend repeated incredulously as he walked away from the supply tent. “That’s the most radical statement I’ve heard so far!”
Since those glorious first moments of what could now be called an uprising or a movement, the occupiers have had to make greater concessions to “reality,” meaning that they now “do” money, but it’s to their credit that they have done so tentatively and on their own conditions. Every revolution begins by questioning the very concept of “reality” as it is socially defined and by pushing against it until it begins to fray and finally give way to a new definition.
The root of the word “reality” is intertwined with “royalty” (“real” in Spanish means both “real” and “royal”) because there was a time when royalty defined reality. Now, in the Americas at least, “royalty” no longer exists and “reality” has been transformed in a redefinition that excludes royalty itself. What seemed utopian before that moment in that moment suddenly became the very definition of reality. In the past this process has involved violence, like the execution of King James in the English Civil War, but that itself was only a culminating symbolic representation of a long process of psycho-social transformation through education, culture, ritual etc. in the construction of a new model of reality that eventually supplanted the “royal” model. In that sense “utopia” must be the home and destiny of a revolutionary struggle, and poetry must be its most powerful weapon, if it is to succeed.
One element in the process of the construction of new models of reality, or “revolutions” is the meme, the “viral message,” and it often takes the form of a slogan or chant. The power of political mantras to transform our understanding or redefine our understanding of reality is evident when we consider what the slogan “we are the 99%” has done in the Occupy movement.
Slogans can be prosaic, functional statements, rational and unambiguous, like a statement of doctrine for a church service or a political rally (“We are the 99%” or “The people united will never be defeated” etc.), or they can operate like a poem, suprarational and ambiguous, forcing us to reconsider our sense of “reality.” Those aphorisms in this latter category fit with the “sixth” type of ambiguity as enumerated by William Empson: “when a statement says nothing and the readers are forced to invent a statement of their own, most likely in conflict with that of the author.”
Of this latter group is the Situationist epigraph, “Be realistic: demand the impossible.” This statement, in fact, does say something, but it’s akin to “nothing” insofar as it is apparently contradictory: When could the “impossible” be considered “realistic”? What could be “realistic” about “demand[ing] the impossible”? In contrast to the prosaic “marching” slogans repeated at every demonstration to unite and strengthen group solidarity, this Situationist epigraph is elusive and subversive by its very nature. And for that reason it warrants a closer look.
While we don’t know the actual context that inspired the writer of the Situationist epigram since the Situationist as a movement spanned the years 1957 to 1972, it is most likely that the slogan, “Be realistic: demand the impossible,” first appeared during the uprising of May 1968 in Paris. The slogan, then, probably referred to the clarity the writer had at that moment that the state would eventually cede to its demands and thereby destroy the movement for radical social change. This common ruling class response to the social demands of the oppressed is summed up in the words of a prince in Luchino Visconti’s classic movie, “The Leopard,” “If we want things to stay as they are, everything will have to change.” Making “realistic” demands that could, and would, be met, therefore, would ensure the end of the struggle, the destruction of the movement, and guarantee that “things stay the same.”
A few years later, reflecting on that romantic May of 1968, the French singer/songwriter, Georges Moustaki in his song, “Le Temps de Vivre” (“The Time to Live”), reinterpreted that
Nous prendrons le temps de vivre We’ll take the time to live
D'être libres mon amour to be free, my love.
Sans projets et sans habitudes Without projects or habits
Nous pourrons rêver notre vie we’ll dream our life.
Viens, je suis là, je n'attends que toi Come, I’m here, awaiting only you
Tout est possible, Everything is possible.
tout est permis Everything is permitted.
Viens, écoute, les mots qui vibrent Come listen to these words that vibrate
Sur les murs du mois de mai on the walls of the month of May
Ils te disent la certitude They give us certitude
Que tout peut changer un jour that everything can one day change
The song expresses the same utopian spirit as the slogan; it is also an affirmation that what is deemed “impossible” can be realistic. Moustaki, reflecting back on that historical moment from a context in which such a slogan had become an “impossible demand,” sees the revolutionary upsurge of 1968 as a hope or a “certitude” of revolutionary change “one day” in some indeterminate future.
A few years later, when the reaction against the “Revolution of 1968” was in full bloom and the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and other champions of neoliberal capitalism suggested “There Is No Alternative” (the famous “TINA” that dominated the late 20th Century), the Situationist slogan took on a new meaning. It became a statement of resistance against impossible odds in struggle for a new world that was nowhere to be seen. It was a statement of defiance of a “reality” decreed by the masters of the totalitarian lie of the neoliberal capitalist system watching over a locked-down world. With the collapse of “real” socialism and as the world slouched off into that netherland of the “end of history” where the hope of every left alternative, and even the humane possibilities of capitalism, if such existed, were extinguished with the end of the Cold War and the supreme victory of neoliberalism, the Situationist slogan was stored in the dusty attic of history. TINA was the only slogan allowed in this brave new world of neoliberal rule, the echolalia of a mantra that darkened the human mind and increasingly reduced it to catatonia with each repetition.
But almost immediately the “impossible” reappeared, especially in Berkeley, where I was living at the time, but also around the world. Little by little, the circle A of anarchism, no doubt painted by anarcho-punks with a clear grasp of the need for the “impossible,” was sprayed on walls and billboards. Then increasingly the circle “A” began to appear more broadly in personal wear, silk-screened on t-shirts, until it became a fashion statement. In the context of a Capitalist State that claimed the whole planet, the demand for the impossible demand reemerged.
With the Zapatista uprising of 1994 and thereafter, the slogan once again took on an immediate, positive meaning for people in the movement for a “possible world in which many worlds fit.” Contesting with the hegemon, the dream of the possible new world became not merely a demand for “the impossible” but for a plurality of possibilities, a rainbow of possibilities. Out of the collapse of the 20th century utopia-turned-dystopia of “real socialism” and the flatulent promise of the “Third Way,” both of which having clouded and overshadowed all other radical alternatives of an earlier time, such as social democracy, mystical anarchism, secular anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, utopian cooperativism, religious socialism and, yes, the multitude of Marxist socialist alternatives, the World Social Forums (WSF) arose in the heart of the capitalist world that had prohibited the possibility of dreams. The “impossible” was transformed by WSF’s belief that “another world is possible” and as anti-globalization activists confronted the brutal capitalist state in Seattle and elsewhere.
But the definitive break with TINA and the neoliberal siege of the world, formed in iron around the “possible,” came with the changes in Latin America, particularly in South America, where left governments took power in the process of emerging from the military dictatorships organized and supported by the United States. “Demanding the impossible” meant in that context something very similar to what it meant in 1968: it became a call to not settle for reforms to capitalism, but to push the agenda farther, beyond the realm of the “possible” as defined for us by the capitalist system or even by so-called “socialist” governments proclaiming the “socialism of the 21st century” but offering only more handouts and top-heavy, bureaucratic parties in the style of the Marxist-Leninist parties of 20th century communism.
In the present, just ten years after the uprisings in Argentina, the victory of left governments throughout Latin America, and the presidential victory of the first African American in US history, the slogan has a new, even more dramatic meaning: if the planet is to survive, we have no choice but to “demand the impossible.” Many of what were viewed as “impossible” achievements in 1968 have been won, and they clearly don’t go far enough. In Latin America the “left” governments continue to follow the extractivist development model dictated by world capitalism even as they turn more attention to their poorest citizens. This is particularly true of Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, who has repeatedly directed repressive military and police forces against environmentalists and indigenous people attempting to defend the earth. But even President Evo Morales works from a double discourse, proclaiming socialism and respect for indigenous rights and Pachamama while building roads through indigenous lands and nature reserves to facilitate the business of Brazilian capital.
Then, of course, there’s the United States, where the official political spectrum, by world standards, has been reduced to that very small space between the far right and the extreme right, rigidly confined, to this day, by strict neoliberal orthodoxy. Just a few years ago “demanding the impossible” seemed to consist of electing an African American liberal to the presidency. That achievement of anti-racist progressive forces still remains one of the most inspiring moments in the 21st Century USA despite the disappointment that followed. At best, President Obama has turned out to be only a shade different from his predecessor, and in some ways he’s worse: it’s doubtful that Bush would have managed to pass the free trade agreements Obama has pushed through, nor would Bush have been able to get away with murder–literally, in the case of bin Laden, Al-Awlaki and countless Pakistanis–without an enormous outcry from left liberals.
In this context, what does it mean to “be realistic” and “demand the impossible”? What “impossible demand” must we make in our context, a context in which the continuation of the capitalist system has become impossible (if Immanuel Wallerstein is correct in his analysis that we’re now experiencing a “systemic crisis”), and the survival of human civilization unlikely?
Those currently occupying the cities across the United States and the world have been criticized for not “making demands” or “having a program” or “an agenda.” Occupiers have responded that “our occupation is our demand.” Certainly the right to peaceably assemble is a first requirement for any movement, but the occupiers, more than anyone, are quite clear that the demands can’t end there. Many argue that the occupiers need to come up with a long list of specific demands, but I would side with those Situationists who would argue that such a list would be self-defeating: it would invite the rulers of the world to cede demands and ensure that “things stay the same.” Yet it’s clear that the “impossible” demand is the only alternative to this impossibly irrational and unsustainable system that turns “reason” and all its resources to the exploitation and destruction of the planet. The occupiers, for the most part, aren’t so simple-minded as to fall for the “possible.” They know that last thing they should do is offer a “realistic” set of demands and settle for a “realistic” program. The time has come to make “impossible” demands on this impossible system because the future of the world is at stake. And we can’t settle for anything less.
Note: For more on the Situationists, see Ken Knabb’s excellent article in Counterpunch.