reading note – David Graeber – Revolutions in Reverse

This article by David Graeber starts with an interesting question: Why does radical politics often seem “unrealistic”? Participants in radical politics emphasize the importance of imagination and critique alienated lives, and although the terms “imagination” and “alienation” seem to have been abandoned by political theorists, they still seem valid for understanding actual human experience. In this paper, Graeber draws on the experience of the Direct Action Network (DAN) to reflect on these concepts in a simple and perceptive way, outlining an “imagined political ontology.

He begins by distinguishing between the left and the right in terms of violence and the imaginary: the right believes that the most fundamental power of a society is violence: those in power can impose their demands by destructive means, so the right’s understanding of “reality” is that the world is fundamentally determined by destructive forces. The left does not deny the existence of violence and, more insidiously, structural violence, but it believes that reality is created by people and can be made to look like something else.

The transformation of reality is mediated by the imagination. Imagination is not a utopian fantasy detached from reality, as some left-wing theorists have criticized, but is embedded in the world and is the mediating link in the transformation of the world by man. Imagination is not only legitimate but also necessary for social revolution.

Anarchists believe that the so-called “public” is not a solid entity, and that its actions are to some extent determined by the requirements implicit in the situation. The bureaucratic social system imposed many limitations, either explicit or implicit, on the possibilities of human imagination and action, and these blocked possibilities suddenly seemed to open up in the particular context of revolution, when people felt “an urgent practical need to recreate, to reimagine everything around them”.

Revolution has traditionally been understood as a one-shot uprising that begins with an insurrection aimed at overthrowing state power and moves from the euphoria of celebration to the serious and cumbersome creation of new institutions, often rebuilding a bureaucracy of structural inequality. The “everyday life revolution” of “direct action” goes in the opposite direction, starting with the creation of new forms of collective decision-making, and then creating short-lived but free situations in which to fight against the state. They believe that “such action can only be truly revolutionary if the process of situation creation is as free as the situation itself.

However, such experiments in reorganizing the imagination are still conducted under the weight of state power, and cumbersome regulations and even direct crushing by force can frustrate the practitioners of alternative politics. In a more difficult context where institutional violence is not only hidden in the structures of inequality, but also directed at the physical life of human beings, how can we use our imagination to cut holes in the “fabric of reality” for people to breathe freely?


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