Spirit of revolt

There are periods in the life of human society when revolution becomes an imperative necessity, when it proclaims itself as inevitable. New ideas germinate everywhere, seeking to force their way into the light, to find an application in life; everywhere they are opposed by the inertia of those whose interest it is to maintain the old order; they suffocate in the stifling atmosphere of prejudice and traditions. The accepted ideas of the constitution of the State, of the laws of social equilibrium, of the political and economic interrelations of citizens, can hold out no longer against the implacable criticism which is daily undermining them whenever occasion arises, — in drawing room as in cabaret, in the writings of philosophers as in daily conversation. Political, economic, and social institutions are crumbling; the social structure, having become uninhabitable, is hindering, even preventing the development of the seeds which are being propagated within its damaged walls and being brought forth around them.

The need for a new life becomes apparent.

The opening of Kropotkin’s “Spirit of Revolt,” prompted obviously by the events in Iran, but just as much by various occupations and other actions. There are at least two things that strike me as apposite about this paragraph. First, Kroptokin names “new ideas” as giving rise to revolt, not, as the usual Marxist formulation has it, “material conditions.” But Kropotkin’s “new ideas” aren’t simply idealism recast. Instead, they are formed by collaborations and conditions that are material but not limited to the economic: affective relations, social commerce, and diurnal cooperation. Contra current materialist theories, both mainstream and oppositional, as applied to Iran, in which the poor, working class, and rural belong to Ahmadienejad and the middle class and urban belong to Mousavi — in other words, where economic class and relative positions of poverty are said to determine one’s political allegiances — Kropotkin says that the “need for a new life” doesn’t ultimately depend on economic circumstances. Millions of Iranians from all classes protesting not just the fraud by the regime but its existence, like middle-class student occupiers in the U.K. and the U.S. insisting on their antagonism, are living Kropotkin’s precept.

The other thing to notice is that Kropotkin doesn’t mention anything about organization when describing the impetus to revolt. Again, in a time when many leftists insist on the necessity of organization and institution-building, Iranians and the occupiers are acting completely outside the bounds of preexisting structures and groupings. They are showing that organization can be formed in the process of action, that spontaneous reactions to events can create their own politics.

All of the above is, of course, too unsubtle, and probably too romantic. Economic conditions and organization are important. I want to say more about the events of the last few weeks and months — including some responses to Reid’s great but symptomatically problematic post at Planomenology — but it seems important to begin by stressing what these events have reminded us: politics doesn’t have to be coterminous with economics and its practice doesn’t have to rely on the demands of organization.

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