As I read my student’s Ethics exams (not bad, the kids are alright), I’m brought back to Dennett’s compatibilist conception of freedom developed in Freedom Evolves (and despite loving him remind me never to teach his books again, they’re an organizational mess). Early on Dennett suggests that those that believe they have free will actually have free will and those that do not believe they have free will do not have free will. His point here is elusive but, I think, very simple. A belief is not nothing but is one causal factor among others. Here Dennett seems to repeat a variation of the joke Lacan tells towards the beginning of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, where he recounts the tale of the boy who said “I have three brothers. Paul, John, and myself.” Okay, this joke isn’t that funny, but Lacan’s point is that the boy counts well because he includes himself as one of the entities to be counted. Thus, for example, when, in a correlationist frame of mind, we treat objects as things opposed to a subject, we count poorly because we forget that we too are one of these objects in the world (this is one reason I never get suggestions that somehow OOO hates humans and wants to eradicate them because it champions the existence of objects. Er, humans are beings or objects too!). But I digress. My point is that Dennett is arguing that when we ask ourselves questions like “am I just a clockwork mechanism determined by mechanical rules and from the outside?” we forget that our beliefs are also causal factors in our action and that they make a difference in that action.
So this is the basic idea: if I believe that I am free, then I will be free because I will at least try to influence my circumstances and my own potentials. If I believe that I am determined, by contrast, I will be unfree because, believing myself determined, I won’t bother to try to change my circumstances. If I believe that it is possible for me to learn how to play guitar, I will actually put the effort in towards learning the guitar. I may not become Jimmy Hendrix, to be sure, but I will certainly learn something of guitar (can you tell I feel guilty that I haven’t tried to learn guitar… I’m looking at you Troy Doucet!). If, by contrast, I believe that through, say, some genetic disposition I am constitutively unable to learn guitar I will never try and therefore really will never learn how to play guitar. My belief here plays a crucial causal role in whether or not I change my circumstances and abilities.
And here it seems to me that there’s a bizarre and surprising way in which Dennett comes very close to Zizek and Badiou in his discussions of freedom. It seems to me that the work of Zizek and Badiou is primarily motivational. Where, for years, we got Continental social and political theory after theory demonstrating all of the ways in which we are secretly determined by forces behind our backs such as the secret machinations of language (Lacan will go so far as to say we’re “cuckold” by language in Seminar 5, that language uses us rather than we using language), or power or “social forces” or economics or any of the other sundry forces that invade our lives, where theory has paralyzed us with self-doubt, leading us to wonder “are these truly emancipatory aims and practices or are we just reproducing ideology?”, Zizek and Badiou have everywhere sought to cultivate the belief that we are free, that we can act, that we can decide. For them– and they’re right –the belief that we can choose and act is every bit as important as actually acting and choosing. And if this is the case, then this is because without that prior belief we never will choose or act (Zizek is quite explicit on this point throughout all of his writings).
What activist and emancipatory social and political theorist hasn’t looked at the social world, tugging her hair and frustration, and noting that “there is only one capitalist owner there and there are thousands of you, why don’t you do something, why do you put up with this?”, “there is only one slave owner with a gun there, and hundreds of you, why don’t you do something?”, “there is only one king there and all of you, why don’t you do something?” Echoing Reich, Deleuze and Guattari said that the real question is “why do people will their own oppression?” Why do we accept our own oppression. In many respects, Badiou and Zizek are the next dialectical step beyond Deleuze and Guattari. Understanding why we might will our own oppression is an important thing, but the next step must consist in cultivating the realization and the belief that we can do something, that all of this is contingent, that other ways are possible. And this is exactly what they strive to do. That’s why they like Saint Paul so much. The person that believes this is the only possible way, that you have to work with the constraints of the system as it is, that it is infantile not to negotiate and compromise, is the person that will never change the way things are.
But while believing that we can do something, that we have the freedom to change things, is a necessary condition for changing things, it is not sufficient. A few days ago an old friend of mine who often approaches me in an accusational and adversarial way that I find deeply unpleasant, wrote me expressing surprise that I haven’t written more about the Occupy Wall Street movement. I have written about OWS, but I also confess that I’m deeply ambivalent about this movement and rather pessimistic about their chances of producing change. To be sure, I share their ire and aims. There’s no question about that. But I have significant reservations about their methods. I don’t really like all this peaceful revolution talk. Mel and I have fought like cats and dogs over this, with her joyous over what she’s seeing and me pessimistic. I thus haven’t written much, instead watching, trying to understand what’s happening, and waiting.
So why do I have reservations while sharing both the positions and aims of these protesters? I just can’t, for the life of me, understand how this strategy might compel a government that’s owned by the forces of capital and capital itself to bow to their demands. It is an important step for these demands to be articulated and for people to organize and form a new sort of community or collective, but, viewing, as I do, this situation as a warfare situation, I’m completely unclear as to how this current form of organization can bring about any concessions from the Wall Street owned powers of government and the banks and corporations. In my view, the only way to produce change in this situation is to hit these entities where they live: to interrupt their flows of capital. The Civil Rights transformations didn’t simply occur because people marched and said that race laws were unjust. No, you had to have something like the Montgomery Bus Boycott to make these forces give a damn. The Arab Spring wasn’t simply the result of people congregating in a square and refusing to leave, but rather there had to be something like a general strike that shut everything down and all flows of money.
And this is what I’m just not seeing yet. How are we hitting banks, corporations, and politicians where they live? How are we hitting their flows of money or capital? If you don’t hit or significantly impact these things, then we have nothing to bargain with. Remember the Magna Carta? The King had to be compelled to sign it at the point of a sword. Would he have signed it otherwise had he simply been presented with arguments about injustice? I doubt it. The formations of new collective bodies is an important step in the building of a sword, but as of yet I don’t see the appearance of the sword that would compel these bastards to do anything more than sit on their balconies drinking champagne and laughing at the protesters (and this has really happened). I don’t yet see the sword that would make the politicians, funded by these bastards such that they should be wearing their insignias on their suits as they campaign, that would compel them to take the protesters seriously rather than worry over whether or not they will get that campaign money they need to run. That’s my question: Where is the sword? What discomfort are you willing to endure to bring these assholes to their knees? What are you willing to do to shut things down? And in the absence of finding ways to shut things down, I just really don’t see much hope for change here. I think we have this fantasy that we can just get together, organize, and denounce and that the ethics and justice of our words will carry the day. Yet no one who has power has ever willingly given up that power unless they have something to lose by not doing so. And so far, as far as I can tell, nothing has been put on the table that would create a scenario where these guys have something to lose. As I write these words and think these thoughts, however, I worry that I might be placing myself in the position of the person that doesn’t believe he has freedom. Then again, while it’s important to believe you can learn how to play the guitar to actually become capable of playing the guitar, you have to actually gain access to a guitar to learn how to play the guitar. I’m not yet seeing the access.
So where are my reservations