This is the first part of a brief essay. As always, it’s not a scholarly effort, just my own musings. I’m planning sections on Dissent, No Borders, No Bosses, and then perhaps a general conclusion.
Dissent is not an infantile disorder. Dissent is not a continuation into adulthood of adolescent hormones. Dissent, in its purest and most revolutionary form, is a breaking in, or indeed a breaking out from within, of moral, philosophical, rational, or spiritual light and a refusal to be bound by the corresponding darkness, no matter how framed in respectable tradition that darkness is, no matter how cherished that darkness is, no matter how much those who walk in that darkness have come to consider it light. Dissent comes from vigilance, from a refusal to be complacent, from constant critical review. Dissent manifests itself in all areas of human activity, endeavour, and concern – there is dissent in art, in science, in politics, in matters of faith, in every aspect of how we view the world and our place in it.
Dissenters put themselves at risk. Entrenched and traditional views, practices, and structures have great accrued strength, and often dissenters throw themselves at the rockface of tradition to little avail. This in itself is no proof of the virtue of tradition but rather of its obstinacy, and thus dissenters can be portrayed as brave and honourable failures because, yes, there are more failures than success stories in the history of dissent. Some dissenters even become martyrs. Dissent is diverse, and dissenters may themselves be as diverse as Gautama Siddhartha, Spartacus, Jesus of Nazareth, Martin Luther, Gerard Winstanley, George Fox, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Paul Cézanne, Emmeline Pankhurst, Mohandas K Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the full list of dissenters will contain many controversial names; but always dissent is radical, visionary, and revolutionary, if not in its obvious form then in its implications1.
Ironically success has been one of dissent’s greatest areas of failure. The two great revolutions of history – the American and Russian – were each the result of dissent, and in each case were the foundation of profoundly conservative institutions and structures. To my mind this means that both failed, and failed spectacularly, and the fact that one of these structures has “survived” has, to my mind, absolutely nothing to do with the fact that it is a failure. It has always proved to be thus when the mistargeted object of dissent is to replace the power of tradition with an alternative power. Just look at the following largely political examples. The Reformation replaced Catholic hegemonies with Protestant ones; the English Civil War briefly replaced an absolute monarchy with a Parliamentary hegemony and then a military dictatorship; the French Revolution sought to replace an absolute monarchy with a republic, and became a state under the Imperial power of one man2; America sought to break remote rule by the Crown and to create an ideal system of government, and ended up lumbering itself with a Constitution that effectively stifles reform; the Bolsheviks in Russia had, as a deliberate and prominent part of their policy, the seizure of state power, and having seized it failed to realise that that was a problem in its own right; Iran threw out a decadent Shah and replaced him with a mediaevalist theocracy; the list seems to be endless!
I do not, by the way, seek to limit the definition of dissent to the perceived political “Left”. The list above of “failures” contains a fairly diverse ideological spread – ideological, not merely political. However I do have severe reservations about the nature of dissent from the “Right”, inasmuch as it seems to be, more often than not, a reactionary phenomenon; it may in certain respects appear to have laudable ideals, it may in certain respects appear to protect certain valuable privileges (which it will claim as freedoms), but more often than not its idealism will be rooted in the past, will be seeking a retreat, will have in its ideology more than a hint of “golden-ageism”. The Tea Party in the USA, taking its name from one of its country’s national myths, appears to have its idealism rooted in a Norman Rockwell painting; The Nazis in Germany appeared to have theirs rooted in a quasi-Wagnerian Urwelt; and no, I am not equating the two movements, merely giving my impression of a common aspect of Right-dissent. I believe that such a characteristic does serve to weaken the concept of dissent from the political Right; readers must therefore forgive me if, having acknowledged it, I pass on and, for the purposes of this essay, focus away from it.
Nor do I wish to categorise those that remain, once I have dismissed the Right, as being necessarily of what is traditionally viewed as the “Left”. Tradition, after all, is the antithesis of dissent, and amongst the “Left” are many voices and forces which are traditionalist and conservative in outlook. Again nor do I wish to imply that old ideas are useless because of their age per se. Many movements of radical dissent have failed without fully realising the potential of their principles – these same “old ideas” – and much of that failure was not because of the weakness of those principles (often it was due to the force majeure of tradition and vested interest). Always the words of Samuel Beckett sound in our ears: “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” You never know, one day you might just succeed, if your principles are sound and your courage is strong. Whilst adherence to the failed manifestations of old ideas – to Marxism in its Bolshevist, oligarchic form, to Christianity in its institutional form, to give only two examples – has little worth, that does not mean that we should toss away as irrelevant due to age of the teachings of Marx, Christ, Socrates, Buddha et al. They have much to teach us – not least of all the things which their disciples from following generations have ignored or forgotten! The sane, humane, and rational utilitarianism of “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”3, the compassion of “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them”, the wisdom of “The unexamined life is not worth living” or of “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger” – these and more still have the ring of truth about them, and all spring from somewhere outside the then- and now-accepted norms of society.
I sense a question in the minds of some readers. You have become aware that my concept of dissent, though it might be diverse in foundation, is one of total dissent, revolutionary dissent, the kind of dissent that seeks or hopes to overturn existing “order” in favour of a better. What of dissent in its function simply as the “conscience” of society, rather than its implacable overturner? Yes, dissent often fills this role almost by default. This is never more obvious than when dissent takes the form of single-issue campaigning. A single issue is, it must be admitted, something around which a larger number of diverse folk can unite and can campaign prominently to the extent that they are heard, some notice is taken, some measures taken, and some success claimed. However it always takes place within the confines of an existing structure, seeking piecemeal reform of that structure and not necessarily questioning that structure critically as a whole4. A system or structure can sometimes absorb or embrace changes, turning them to its own advantage. For example capitalism, initially resistant to the entirely justifiable pressure for equal employment opportunities and pay for women (at a time when, by tradition, women were employed by-and-large in a few specific areas only, and for low wages or “pin money” to use the dismissive term of the time), embraced the concept as soon as it became clear that there would be an overall increase in available labour, and hence a fall in its market value.
Advocates of dissent as no more than society’s conscience must bear this in mind, and must realise that it is often a dangerous path to follow. Maximilien Robespierre, a dissident but also the man of whom it could have truly been said that if you give the most ardent revolutionary absolute power he will become a tyrant, criticised political moderates to the effect that they want “a revolution without a revolution”, meaning that they want to see change without disturbance to the comfort of their lives. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Rome admonishing them that all temporal power is ordained by God and they should be subject to these powers, he would have known the implication of that subjection; there would have been no way a first century Christian would have felt obliged to obey any law which contradicted the teaching of Christ, but equally no way that Christian would have run away from the consequences. Christian tradition5 has the Apostle Peter being crucified and Paul beheaded. This is chastening. The accepted danger in this philosophy lies of course in a system’s response to dissent, in its embracing (as exemplified in the previous paragraph) or resisting.
A system’s answer to dissent can take a number of forms, from outright repression to subtle marginalisation, depending on the characteristics of the system. A totalitarian system will be more likely to resort to repression; a system which relies for its survival on the belief amongst its population in individual freedom cannot, for obvious reasons, resort immediately to overt repression (though there are instances in history where a state has become totalitarian almost over night, so there is nothing to be gained by complacency). There are other tactics which can be employed and are employed often, both reactive and proactive. As an obvious example the prevailing system/power always has access to mass media; the politically already-powerful set much of the news agenda and can guarantee themselves headline coverage by even the most apparently-independent newspaper or broadcaster. In a free-market system where dissent may be expected to be critical of capitalism, the media will be overwhelmingly in private hands and will have a vested interest in combating dissent from the “Left”, and so manipulation of fact and of the interpretation of fact may be expected. In all systems the law may be invoked, and may be used fairly or unfairly. As an example of a proactive step, dissident groups may be infiltrated, spied upon, subverted, and their actions anticipated or forestalled by the covert agencies of a state (to answer anyone who might accuse me of being a “conspiracy theorist”, if the covert agencies of our own countries do not do this, then they are not doing the job they are paid for!), or a deliberate culture of patriotism may be fostered – daily pledges given to a flag by schoolchildren, a series of national or ethnic myths may be encouraged by linguistic and visual iconography, love of a “dear leader” may be invoked, and so on.
To be continued…
1 That is not to say that a reactionary type of dissent does not also exist. It does, and a prominent modern manifestation of that is the Tea Party movement in the USA. To some readers of my blog this may seem like a recurring (and easy) target of mine; however, I only mention the Tea Party because of its prominence, and given that it seeks to be prominent and to promote its views by that prominence, it can have no complaint if I pay attention to it. Thomas Jefferson said: “A government afraid of its citizens is a Democracy. Citizens afraid of government is a tyranny”. To my mind, a state or a system where each is afraid of the other is simply dysfunctional – and that’s probably the whole point of this article! Anyhow, suffice it to say that I do not regard reactionary dissent as true dissent, because it seeks to reinforce or to retreat into tradition rather than to challenge it. The fact that it is populist or that it can mobilise vociferous support does not make it revolutionary, or radical, or visionary; its targets are often imaginary or illusory at worst, or simply derived from a half- or badly-formed analysis of a situation at best.
2 I like to put it this way: it took Rome about two thousand years to go from the expulsion of the Tarquins to the sack of Constantinople, whereas a similar process took place in France over the adult lifetime of one man, Napoleon Bonaparte!
3 Famously a quotation from Karl Marx, but also attributed to Mikhail Bakunin.
4 Critical review does not necessarily have to come to the conclusion that a whole structure must be swept away; however, in my mind, there is no reasonable excuse for not keeping a whole structure under critical review. To think and act otherwise is complacent and lazy.
5 It would have to be, if only because I’m dealing with dissent!