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.