Distilled Pamphlets The Art of the Possible

"Getting rich does not happen in a space outside the state and community, but involves (as a rule) a violent process of appropriation that casts serious doubt on the right of the rich achiever to own the wealth he may then go on to give generously." In his most recent book the popular philosopher Slavoj Zizek reiterates some of his earlier critiques of contemporary capitalism by challenging the underlying logic of charity giving. By emphasising the importance of charity giving, fair trade coffee at Starbucks (or as I will argue social entrepreneurship) we are only reiterating the social structures and relations that have caused the problems in the first place. By misinterpreting the ‘possible’ and being determined to change the world we live in we are often driven to act on a fallacy that attempts to solve the problems through the same mechanism that have created them in the first place.

So why are so many charities, NGO’s, student groups, and people who focus on eradicating poverty, addressing social exclusion and overcoming environmental degradation attempting to solve the issues by throwing money at them? Or worse creating programs that generate profits in a socially responsible way? Would it not make more sense to rally around systematic changes? Act on addressing the root causes of poverty, social exclusion and environmental degradation, rather than using the logic of the system to combat the symptoms of the system? I do not believe that it is because we refuse to agree with Zizek in that the accumulation of profit is a fundamentally violent process. Rather when it comes to transposing our principles into action we do exactly what this issue of Distilled Magazine is attempting to examine. We get trapped within the ‘Art of the Possible’ and believe that in order to act on our principle, in order to do something, we have to conform to the structures we are presented with.

Global capitalism is not just controlling the means of production but also to some extent the imagination of the most principled who are itching for action. It has defined what the ‘Art of the Possible’ entails and only within these narrow confines can we act. Genuine alternatives are hard to find and even when they exist in theory, the praxis is often riddled with contradictions, hypocrisy and unsustainable relations because they are attempts at escaping rather than changing the logic of capitalism.

The problem with doing in the age of contemporary capitalism is that it has successfully reified its modus operandi. The injustices we see are reduced to human failure or historical legacies and only occasionally attributed to the wider global system. In the failed socialist projects of the 20th century the root of evil and injustices were obvious. In a system that is based on state planning and control the responsible entity is and will always be the state and its elites. Unfortunately this is not the case with contemporary capitalism, in particular since the beginning of neoliberalism and its scrupulous expansion across the globe. The contemporary political system is not defined by capitalism but as an internationalist liberal project. We still believe that it is a utopian adventure and challenging its political and economic foundations means to challenge the values of equality, human rights and freedom we have so delicately acquired over the last 60 or so years.

The social relations present within this economic and political system are so far removed from public consciousness that democracy, liberalism and capitalism become one and the same. It takes multiple factories to collapse or burn down and hundreds of deaths until a genuine outcry over the Bangladeshi textile industry took hold and even then the companies who reap the most profits from these dismal conditions are largely unscathed. And the logic behind these disasters definitely is. It takes a global financial crisis with riots, protests and millions of white westerners to drift into poverty until the discussion behind capitalism even started again. And even then it was not capitalism but predatory capitalism and financial speculations that became the problem.

What resulted from this rather clever discourse was an emergence of so called social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship is quickly becoming our generation's answer to the collective trauma of global capitalism and its narrow paradigm of what is ‘possible’ and acceptable within ‘democratic and liberal’ societies. If being nice to one another and coming up with clever ideas that minimise the way in which we exploit each other and the environment has become something that is congratulated, something that is new and visionary, surely our fundamental paradigm of human interactions is wrong. If we are congratulating each other for finding ways to make the system in which we live that little bit less inhumane, don’t we all implicitly already agree that the system is inhumane? So why then not try and come up with ways to change it fundamentally? Surely we would all want to live in a global society where being social to each other is the basic requirement for everything we do, rather than something that is celebrated.

This might all seem rather utopian. And that is true. It is a radical utopian vision. And that is exactly what is needed. Frederic Jameson argues that without a utopia we will never be able to see or imagine the outlines for a new political reality. And for now all that our new utopian vision needs, is to clearly outline what the problem is.

The problem is not democracy, or human rights or even necessarily the post-war individual liberalism that has gripped the western hemisphere. The problem is the belief that these are the defining characteristics of our political system and creating a radical utopian vision will undermine those. Challenging the logic of capitalism does not have to mean challenging the logic of human rights and individual freedoms. It will mean challenging the way in which these concepts are used to promote and protect capitalism. In his analysis of the ‘society of security’ Foucault describes how democracy and liberties are accepted as long as the flow of commerce is not interrupted in any significant manner. The state no longer has to discipline and can grant its citizens the freedoms they want as long as the flow of capital accumulation is not interrupted.

Everyone is given free range within the confines of the ‘possible’. And possible is anything that does not interrupt the flow of commerce or the logic of capitalism. Unfortunately actions within these confines will be futile without an understanding of the impossible. Social entrepreneurship, philanthropy and charity giving are often praised for being ‘efficient’ or promoting ‘realistic change’. The problem with the reification of capitalist social relations, or operating within the confines of the ‘art of the possible’, is that if you are praised for realistic change you are by definition not changing the status quo.

So instead of attempting to act on our principles and be limited by the art of the possible, instead of expecting praise for being ‘realistic’ and ‘efficient’, actions need to appeal to the art of the impossible. Because only by acting on something that we perceive to be impossible we are challenging the status quo in a real way. And even if our actions show no tangible and immediate results, if they contribute to the development of a new utopia we will have contributed hugely to the realisation of our principles.

I often find myself agreeing with some of my contemporaries who decide to use social entrepreneurship in order to promote social change. In the same way that I find it difficult to denounce charity giving when it improves the livelihood of people around the world. But I refused to accept that the best way to eradicate poverty and suffering is through reiterating the same exploitative relationships. I do not think it is the only approach to acting upon our principles and more importantly I think the opportunity to use the current crisis as a chance to reinterpret the possible has not yet faded.

Often the drive to act focuses too much on the art of the possible and too little on the possibilities beyond that. The art of the impossible, the utopian challenge of the current status quo, modus operandi or capitalist social relations is what in my mind makes social movements great. Otherwise our actions become part of an ‘industry of change’ that only reinforces global inequalities. If we accept that the logic of the global political and economic system is responsible for creating much of the poverty, inequality, exclusion and injustices that we see around us, than acting according to that same logic to promote social change is not just a fallacy but a tragedy.