The Politics of the Impossible


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Photo: Jed Brandt

The U.S. electoral system is all about what the system deems possible. During each election season we are given the choice between a few politicians who promise change; we vote and then things remain the same.

Elections in this society provide a democratic façade for a system that remains fundamentally undemocratic because it is fundamentally bound by a false notion of what is possible and what is not. A candidate can support abortion rights or marriage equality or propose to close tax loopholes. Our current political system deems these changes possible – and indeed, they would be steps forward in the struggle for justice. Yet elections cannot usher in a new social order that places the needs of all before the profits of a few.

This change is considered impossible.

Now is the time for us to practice the politics of the impossible. Gay rights, access to abortion and the eight-hour work-day were all once considered impossible. These reforms were won only because brave activists dared to practice the politics of the impossible.

Another past example that we should seek to learn from is the Paris Commune of 1871. During the Commune, workers who were previously excluded from politics burst onto the scene and seized control to provide for their own needs. The Commune did not hold private property inviolable or rely on the system’s mechanisms for change. This established a new possibility of politics. Even after its defeat, that possibility still remained open. We need to repeat the gesture of the Commune today by suspending the existing coordinates of political possibilities and building something new.

Instead of accepting the parameters of possibility which the system gives us, people within the Occupy Movement are questioning them. Within Occupy, discussions range from capitalism to the nature of work to the future we want to build. This flowering of truly open, critical discussion challenges the politics of the possible.

Photo: Jed Brandt

This upsurge of ideas naturally has many asking and debating what to do next. How should Occupy help to establish a society that prioritizes the needs of all before the profits of a few as we have vowed to do?

Some argue that the goal of providing for all can be achieved, or at least promoted, through becoming involved in the U.S. electoral system. According to this argument, reforms will come if we seize the possibilities that the system allows. Take the example of President Obama’s financial sector reform. This reform sought to provide standards and supervision to protect the economy and consumers, investors and businesses, and to end taxpayer-funded bailouts of financial institutions. Yet capitalism cannot be rendered rational or restrained. Capitalism is compelled to constantly seek profit or die.

Obama and many Democrats believe that the system can be reformed to become more balanced and stable, more fair (at least for some). And that is not true. Capitalism is fundamentally exploitative and its whole structure continually produces a stark inequality between the rich and poor in the United States and abroad. The 1% are rich precisely because they exploit the 99% and keep them poor.

But what if we argue for domestic concessions and lend critical support to Barack Obama, despite the imperialist wars he has launched? Perhaps we could push Obama in an antiwar direction. That process has a certain logic. Those who take it urge us to be patient while they supporting the empire with its enforcers, and its illusions. Domestic concessions become more important than opposing murder overseas.

Is that the possibility we should accept?

What should we do instead?

We need to break with the politics of the possible and practice those of the impossible.

Our current system makes it impossible for the 99% to determine its own destiny. Yet many of us within Occupy insist that the 99% can build a new world. We can emancipate ourselves from capitalism’s politics of the possible. This is what the philosopher Alain Badiou might call the “Truth” of Occupy. This is the Truth that Occupy must pledge fidelity to and carry through to the end: We, the 99%, can remake the world on new foundations.

Occupy, in Badiou’s terms, is the site of the Event, which is a rupture with reality and the creation of new possibilities. The organization of a new Truth is emerging within Occupy. The people of Occupy are taking hold of their lives, building new organizations and remaking themselves and the world through struggle. This is no easy task, and it has no ultimate guarantee of success. However, to return to the politics as usual now, by focusing our energies on the electoral realm, and thus pouring our precious emancipatory energies into supporting the corrupt order in the form of any of the major parties, would be a betrayal of the Truth that has made Occupy worth working for.

We need to be radical and to accelerate the break with the system, rather than settling for reforming it. We must build Occupy as genuine people’s power that overthrows the rule of the 1%. We need to discover new strategies and experiment in order to radically change society.


A version of this article originally appeared on The Boston Occupier.


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  • Anonymous

    This isn’t possible without a majority. Sorry. You aren’t going to get one camping in the park, either.