Revolt in the Age of Neoliberalism: Revolutionary Rehearsals 1989–2019 – Michigan Quarterly Review

Revolt in the Age of Neoliberalism: Revolutionary Rehearsals 1989–2019

The warm reception of an earlier volume similarly titled Revolutionary Rehearsals and published in 1987 raises sensible expectations for a new collection, Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age: 1989-2019. The 1987 edition features five reflections on revolutionary situations: the French general strike of May 1968, Chile from 1972–73, Portugal from 1974–75, Iran in 1979 and Poland from 1980–81. Contributors to the present Revolutionary Rehearsals address eight uprisings from all around the world. They offer insightful readings simply because they go well beyond the descriptive. The principal advantage of the 2021 volume is that it grapples quite extensively, though not always successfully, with certain theoretical abstractions; it offers useful explanations of how a given insurrection can propagate a successful outcome and why the studied cases, despite their incendiary momentums, failed to do so. 

Apart from registering a crescendo of uprisings in the Global South, the volume addresses recent, successful attempts to reverse revolutionary insurrections. The book illustrates how gaining certain labor reclamations remains light years removed from upsetting the present mode of production and circulation. All contributors meticulously illustrate that in the absence of a historical milestone of consciousness, restorations have regained hegemony and forced their own agendas. Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age clarifies that pathologies of oppression such as racism and masochism are structurally interlinked with pathologies of exploitation. Neil Davidson’s contribution, “The Actuality of the Revolution,” clearly elucidates that the division of oppression and exploitation is a false presupposition and that the day capitalism falls apart, all pathologies will evaporate. Closing that false discussion is, methodologically speaking, never a small gain.      

A final section of the book aims less to summarize the findings of the practical cases developed by the contributors and more to engage with the abstractions of revolts. It is partly an attempt to answer why the rehearsals have not evolved into a truly egalitarian order, or, why revolutionary “rehearsals” have remained mere rehearsals. Given the frequency of failure, the editors examine what has gone wrong in the algebra of the revolutions. Indeed, they explore the laws of necessity that dictate why conservative forces, after an initial shock, destabilization and fragmentation, have eventually reversed the revolutionary momentum.

Colin Barker and Gareth Dale’s “Introduction” paves the way for a demystification of the eight revolutionary cases examined in Part II. However, the same introduction validates the theoretical abstractions in Part III.  Perhaps what grabs the readers’ attention is the editors’ distinction between bourgeois and socialist revolutions. It is not difficult to underscore certain drawbacks to such a distinction, such as the rationalization of each as an independent totality. More worrying, however, is how both editors presuppose that the window for bourgeois insurrections—they emphasize—was from the late seventeenth century to the 1970s.  Underlying this assertion is the editors’ own belief that only bourgeois revolutions are progressive or truly emancipatory. For if indeed the consequentialist approach, which measures a revolution’s success always in relation to its success or failure at delivering on its revolutionary promises, is the volume’s underlying principle, then bourgeois revolutions (being a consequence) most often start as popular or massive uprisings, and it is the bourgeois elements of the elites—in alliance with the ruling classes—that in the midst of opaque unfolding of events quells the socialist upsurge under the pretext of forestalling descent into chaos. The source of the distinction between bourgeois and socialist revolutions, and the theoretical impossibility of the former after the 1970s, lies in this consequentialist approach, which, because it ignores the deep history of the phenomenon at hand, offers a justification rather than an explanation.

 Colin Barker’s contribution, “Theoretical Implications: Social Movements and the Possibility of Socialist Revolution,” follows the same logic proposed in the introduction, in which social movements, that is, movements motored by the rank-and-file society members, remain inherently incapable of either triggering a socialist revolution or leading it toward a fruitful end. While it remains true that in each of the eight cases examined, all insurgencies have been crushed,  Barker nonetheless too easily concludes that social movements cannot marshal the necessary forces for a final victory. 

One can note two objections. The first is that Barker’s distrust of the masses justifies rather than explains a need for the vanguard classes, those educated elites operating as a mediating body of cadres, insofar as they tone down the fiery upsurge, the wild dreams of the uneducated masses. But in their presumed capacity to speak on behalf of the workers or the jobless, the vanguard classes pursue their own narcissistic dreams, betraying the destiny of socialist uprisings. Second, by the time capital becomes itself a religion, family and tradition, that is, whenever and wherever capitalism succeeds in eradicating its past, as it no longer needs that past, neoliberalism arrives. Importantly, this stage does not subscribe to the linear time imagined by the editors, an arc stretching from the mid-seventeenth Century to the 1970s. Rather, with this stage, the opportunities for reversing capital’s gains begin an infinite recession. But the increasing crescendo of the uprisings should warn good Hegelians that quantity can at any moment mutate into quality.      

Part II: “Revolutionary Situations, 1989-2019” collects the eight chapters tracing revolutionary rehearsals in Central and Eastern Europe, the end of Apartheid in South Africa, uprisings in Sub-Saharan Africa, a reform movement in Indonesia, indigenous revolts in Bolivia, the upsurge of the jobless in Argentina, and the Egyptian uprising of 2011. The contributions delineating the uprisings of Egypt, South Africa, Argentina and Venezuela are especially insightful. If indeed there exist any underlying laws and lessons to be extracted from revolutionary rehearsals, these essays claim identity the laws and lessons derived from revolutions that preceded the neoliberal phase beginning in 1970. Under both liberalism and neoliberalism, socialist revolutions have been crushed, a fact which underscores that the mortal enemy for these revolutions is not the stage itself, but the matrix behind the stage: capitalism. 

In every stage, counterrevolutions find the likes of Nelson Mandela’s ANC, the Muslim Brotherhood, the autonomists of Argentina or Hugo Chávez, who serve as people or bodies that not only stabilize the liberal or neoliberal order during decisive moments when it might easily have been crushed. Without reformists-masquerading-as-insurgents or self-congratulating autonomists, the uprisings might have, in the process of its organic unfolding, mutated into a communal utopia. The narcissism or the theoretical poverty of reformists and autonomists, or both, have infected their decisions with consequences that are detrimental to the working classes and redemptive for the capitalists. 

Part III, Neil Davidson’s “The Actuality of the Revolution” serves as a conclusion, but it can be indulged in as a book all unto itself, particularly as it too makes little use of the eight revolutionary cases. Davidson’s analysis resonates with the editors’ distinction between bourgeois or nationalist revolutions, on the one hand, and those with socialist destinations on the other. But, as in the introduction, that classification is tricky, particularly when used to analyze how social movements operate in the real world. The presupposition that national or bourgeois revolutions do “not logically require any significant levels of popular self-activity and self-organization” simply passes by how bourgeois forces use popular uprisings to push their own reformist agenda. 

If readers recall the genealogical unfolding of any one revolution, they can seize for themselves that an uprising always starts as socialist, but when it is only steps away from reaping the fruits of its sacrifices, one bourgeois force or another infiltrates the movement to disfigure its destiny for emancipation. When studying the Egyptian uprising of 2011 in the volume’s eighth chapter, Sameh Naguib extensively delineates such bourgeois embezzlement. Only Naguib’s contribution is categorically clear regarding the diametrically opposed destinations of reformist and revolutionary movements. With its less-than-honest compromises with the military, the Muslim Brotherhood effectively saved the regressive forces, providing a temporary safety pipe for the military that enabled the neoliberal order to return to power through a coup in July 2013. Forced to remove its head (President Mubarak) in consequence of the January 2011 socialist uprising, the military could not assume centerstage directly. It needed a transitory period and a pseudo-revolutionary partner with whom it partially managed the revolutionary situation. Once defragmentation was resumed, the restoration takes its revenge on everyone, including its erstwhile co-conspirators, the Brotherhood. Davidson’s taxonomy between socialist and bourgeois revolutions lacks Naguib’s level of theoretical clarity.  

Well before the neoliberal era and its rehearsals, the Paris Commune of 1871 was crushed in cold blood during the famous la semaine sanglante or “bloody week.” It is worth recalling that sworn enemies, Prussians and French elites, reconciled momentarily and allowed the movement of troops to crush the Commune. The Egyptian, Argentinian or South African situations are not in this sense particular to the neoliberal era; the unfolding of anti-capitalist revolts throughout history are rampant with similar scenarios. But because Revolutionary Rehearsals at times appears cut off from the real movement of things-in-the-world, the question of formulating an algebraic equation with which one can gauge successful from less successful uprisings is too abstract and thus inconsequential. The editors’ predisposition against determinism stifles their overall approach. Gauging success from failure would hold only if revolutionary outbursts were cerebral undertakings, not spontaneous eruptions. In passing over the key to the puzzle, a dialectical method, the editors dwell on their ‘consequentialist’ approach and extend the illusion that their own approach can crack open hidden mysteries that others simply could not.  

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