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The Fire Next Time

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The dangers of revolutionary thinking

By William Deresiewicz

October 21, 2012


 

A new idea seems to be at loose in the land, on the fringes and Facebook, among the young and the disaffected. The system is collapsing—so let it just collapse. There’s nothing we can do about it anyway, and that is probably the best solution after all. The government, the corporations, the fat cats, the vested interests: let them all go smash. We’ll pick up the pieces afterwards and start again.

This is a philosophy (to use the term loosely) that seems uniquely suited to the age. Call it passive revolution. Everything is going to change, and all we need to do is sit back and let it happen. No ideas required, no program or effort. The messianic illusion—of which this, like all visions of revolution, is a form—is a permanent temptation of political life, especially for the young (and we’re all young now). It gave us Obama in 2008, Occupy in 2011. But revolution’s not a game. I wonder, when I hear people talk, with a sort of suppressed schadenfreude, about the coming collapse, whether they have taken the trouble to think, for even a moment, about what they’re suggesting. We’ll pick up the pieces afterwards? What are those “pieces”—the wreck of every system that keeps us fed and safe—going to look like? What makes us think we’ll be the ones who get to pick them up?

Joseph Conrad, who had seen a revolution or two, put it this way:

A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrites at first. Afterwards comes the turn of all the pretentious intellectual failures of the time … The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane and devoted natures, the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement—but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims—the victims of disgust, disenchantment—often of remorse. Hopes grotesquely betrayed, ideals caricatured—that is the definition of revolutionary success.

Liberal democracy, for all of its enormous and inherent flaws, is not a thing to be discarded lightly. The only alternative so far, in modern society, is fascism—and I see lots of fascists at both ends of the political spectrum, lots of would-be commissars and commandants, who would be happy to step into the vacuum. We’ve been here before, between the world wars. Economic crisis, political stalemate: despair at liberal democracy is exactly what they brought on, and fascism, too often, was precisely the result. The hazy dream, the purifying fire: not these again, not these.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.


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