A language of dissent

‘Courage’, says Tony Judt in a brilliant and far-reaching interview in the late-March issue of the London Review of Books, ‘is always missing in politicians….[for them] it isn’t a useful attribute.’

Courage is what we get, or need to have when it becomes difficult to say something that could be truthfully said or done, but where the saying or doing may well cost you something. When a politician, or anyone else for that matter, speaks of the ‘tough decisions’, you can be sure that he or she is taking the easy option; the option that has been carefully calculated will lead to a greater popularity, and, at worst, will cost nothing. Often, in the recent past at least, the ‘tough decision’ politically means hammering the already marginalised and dispossessed. In other words, the politician who takes the supposedly tough decision is often the person who wants to be praised for oppressing the weak and protecting the powerful. The tough decision is very often the self-serving decision.

In a discussion at the end of an earlier post I wrote:

The spectre of Abbott and Rudd striving to outdo each other as ‘hard men’ – Abbott by athletics, and Rudd by refugee policy – is a spectre with zilch compassion or courage. Their behaviour is not a sign of strength but a sign of a terrible weakness and of fear, which is masked by a pathetic facade of ‘I’m so tough – everyone look at me and see how tough I am’.

When the world of global capital went into a catastrophic tailspin eighteen months ago, it not only became brutally apparent how bizarre and mind-bogglingly greedy the structure of international finance was, and is, but it also became abundantly clear where politicians considered the absolute nature of reality and wellbeing and power to lie. All of a sudden the trillions of dollars which were previously unavailable to combat climate change, pan-continental poverty, starvation, and a multitude of other avoidable kinds of suffering, were now poured forth in an unending stream into the empty coffers of banks. A year and a half down the track, politicians are still handwringing over the potential economic cost of committing to action on climate change, banking practices remain unchanged and vast financial bonuses are still being paid to those at the heart of capital’s empires. There’s a kind of collective unspoken disbelief in the air, a kind of slow double-take, as though what we saw take place didn’t, and surely couldn’t have, because it’s too absurd. We were confronted with the Real, and it was unbearably ugly and corrupt.

This unspoken disbelief may well still be hanging there because of the lack of a language to express it, a language of dissent. How do you dissent when those who you would dissent against have armies of minions ready to micro-manage every muttering instant of dissent out of existence? Or when the vocabulary of dissent has been effectively colonised, or, perhaps more importantly, when the Real is unmasked for us in such a nakedly contemptuous way. As Tony Judt remarks:

[The language of dissent] can’t be an economic language since part of the problem is that we have for too long spoken about politics in an economic language where everything has been about growth, efficiency, productivity and wealth, and not enough has been about collective ideals around which we can gather, around which we can get angry together, around which we can be motivated collectively, whether on the issue of justice, inequality, cruelty or unethical behaviour. We have thrown away the language with which to do that. And until we rediscover that language how could we possibly bind ourselves together?

The Canadian writer Bill Readings, whose brilliant book The University in Ruins still isn’t well-enough known, wrote of the need for a ‘dissensual community’ that ‘re-imagines the idea of community’. Perhaps we need to rethink the rules of engagement with each other, engaging in the transgressive encounter to remember that our relationships are not marked by commercial values. Human relationships can’t be commoditised. Nobody can pay you to fall in love with them, and if they could then love could be bought and the nature of relationships would be that of consumption and control and ownership, which funnily enough is usually how love is marketed to us.

Dissent is not just disagreement – though even disagreement is likely enough to get you in trouble these days – but a reworking of the vocabulary of what it means to oppose the status quo and what has been defined as the Real for us. It was more straightforward in the pre-World War era perhaps, before the working class disappeared and before it seemed that we all became compromised by the light-speed expansion of the consumer ethic. Dissent is useless it might seem. Relax. Be comfortable.

In essence though, to dissent we have to know what we have assented to in the first place, where the Real lies. We have to know that what we couldn’t possibly give up – and how we conceptualise that assent and what it looks like to us, in the morning or the evening, wherever you are – is where the vocabulary of dissent starts.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Thanks for another interesting post, Stephen.
    I agree that the language of dissent must be redefined
    and that the collective but largely unspoken assent to the language
    of neoliberalism needs to be outed. However, I am uncertain that
    a language grounded in moral philosophy and notions of community
    offers an effective antidote. Morality, as an abstract value, does not play
    at street level and notions of community are no longer geographic or
    determined by class. I think the reliance on moral outrage and romantic communitarianism is one of the abiding weaknesses of the Left. An effective language of dissent should have morality and community at its core but the language itself should speak plainly and, if necessary, stridently
    from a position of rigorous analysis. It should be heard with the freshness of common
    sense. The reason Barnaby Joyce was able to so effectivley hijack the ETS debate was
    the language he used was plain and direct even if the arguments behind it were entirlely spurious and rendered the speaker as mildly insane to the informed listener. But I’m sure you see my point.
    The Tea Party movement has a workable language of dissent too.

    A revitalised Left movement – btw I hate the L/R semantic dichotomy – must be far more disciplined in language and action than it’s opponents. Since the Hawke Accord it has been unable to decide what it is or who it represents. Perhaps a revitalised lexicon is will help. I think your take on what is ‘Real’ is a good starting point.

      1. Hi Boris: thanks for this. I’ll have to reply quickly as I’m away from home and have limited web time and access.I think that moral philosophy plays very well on the street myself,
        and manifests in a variety of complex ways. I’m not sure that the tea party-ers have a ‘language’ of dissent, only if incoherence can be called language. And communities have become very clearly boundaried by geographies, especially national ones. Classes are not so obvious, but a triad might be liberal intellectuals etc, labouring fundamentalists and the excluded.
        Its become very clear where the Real is supposed to lie.What the transgression of that is, is another matter. We have to know what we have assented to, and the machine of neo-liberal catastrophe capitalism is brilliant at having us assent to things we don’t even know we have assented to. This is the interstice where ruptures are possible. Out of net time. Sorry my comments are so gnomic

        1. In a world where dissent is perceived as fashion, where counter-culture is absorbed into the mainstream more quickly than it can be generated and where activism is clicking a link on Facebook, I wish I could see that those ruptures were possible. I really do.

          1. hi Lani: Briefly….thanks for commenting.The marginal is all
            we have, its where we are. I wroter a bit about
            it in my blog on the marginal a couple,of blogs ago.

  2. Hi Stephen. You say:
    “We have to know what we have assented to, and the machine of neo-liberal catastrophe capitalism is brilliant at having us assent to things we don’t even know we have assented to. This is the interstice where ruptures are possible.”

    This point is deserving of an essay. Why don’t you write one?

  3. Heidegger says we are ‘thrown’ into the world, which I guess means we ‘already always’ assent to many things in the world we find ourselves in, because we are brought up from birth into the myriad of practices and background assumptions our of community etc. And because these are background parts of our life-world much of this can go on without our realising it (so familiar as to be forgotten).

    Stephen, you seem to be suggesting that ‘neo-liberal-catastrophe-capitalism’, as you call it, is especially pre-disposed to the forgetting of our life-world and its values? why so, in particular?

    Also, if the margins is all we have, then a language of dissent (and of care, courage and the like) would come from here… so what is the language of margins-that-are-our-wide-open-space (to use some of your terms from your previous post). A language that does what? looks/sounds/tastes like what?

    1. You want Heidegger, a parpahrase of the workings of catastrophe capitalism and a new language? In one post?
      Sure no problem.
      Heidegger, as far as I understand him – well Being and Time at any rate – and my understanding is meagre, is talking about an
      assent at a level of being, on which maybe more another time, when no-one is looking.
      Catastrophe capitalism (Naomi Klein’s phrase) seems to me to
      only able to function within a collective forgetting, because
      the experiences it offers are repetitive and also incredibly
      traumatic and destructive.
      I can’t (and wouldn’t even if I knew) what a language looks
      or sounds like. It has to be made together I think, as all
      language must be. I would just has to happen in marginal space, which I might rename, in line wit some of the stuff
      you hav ebeen throwing at me, ‘transitional space.’

  4. I’ll get back to you Luke in a day or two. I’m sitting in a seedy backpackers in Cairns. Very marginal. But too marginal to think.

  5. This is such a great post that I think I have to think it through some more before I can really talk about it. I do think that much of what you’re saying about languages of dissent agrees wit post colonial theory and appropriations of culture, but it goes further. Right now, it’s as though what we need is a language of dissent, of disowning, of our own cultural extremes, our capitalist manifesto and our politicians kowtowing to it. We are our own oppressors, so it’s become about trying to change that identity and fight the parts of it hurting us all.

  6. Hi Georgia,
    yes that would be one very fruitful way of coming to grips and inventing
    a language of dissent. I just wrote a response to Luke (which seems to have been eaten in cyberspace)saying that a language has to be invented by all of us together.

  7. Stephen

    Interesting how this comes back to trauma (eg Klein’s disaster capitalism), marginality and some new forms of communal dialogue and discovery… which are in all your posts to date.

    [Overland editors – give this guy a lead essay]

    I didn’t know about Klein catastrophe stuff until your post – quite an interesting, and alarming, perspective. But would it be possible that all power centres for ever and a day have used ‘crisis’ and ‘catastrophe’ to ‘disorientate’ a constituency in order to instigate a new order (that we would otherwise, in our non-traumatic state, not accept). I am thinking about this at all levels, from parenting and couples through to governments, kings, lords and anything in between.

    So our ancestors, when they went hunting for animals, might introduce a trauma into a herd of wild beasts, to disorientate them, in order to instigate an order that the beasts would otherwise not accept — eg, a loud noise or alarming set of visuals from some tribesmen, which then allows other tribesmen to coerce the beasts into a narrow pass or fenced area or geographic region that gives the humans-with-clubs-and-spears a temporary advantage.

    Or the parents that cajole a child to take up a certain practice or relationship (eg, job change, change in romantic relationship, relinquishment of their passions and curiosities, or deference to parental power) in the wake of a major trauma either inflicted from beyond the family unit, or inflicted by the parents themselves (eg, parents abusing their children, physically, verbally, intellectually and/or sexually).

    Or the business manager that changes an entire work team when the team leader is on leave after his child died of cancer.


    1. yeah, I think all these instances are examples of potential or actual disruption being passed on down the line because they can’t be managed in any other way. The ancestral-hunting thing might have had more ritual about it I guess, and was probably a male enterprise, so maybe a way of formally organising uncontainable things, ie: living in a particular type of world etc where unpredictable and maybe violent things were thought about magically and so on.

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