Courage and the Thatcher Inside Your Head

This isn’t so much an article as a brief reflection.

At the moment, I’m reading about Venezuela because I’m interested in legal developments there and am putting together a research proposal about new legal approaches (if you know good authors, I’d appreciate the feedback). I know, I know: Venezuela right? Where they have that Chavez dictator guy? Who shut down that cable company that didn’t like him? Where you should dig yet another grave for the emancipatory left wing project?

I’m not going to get into a long conversation about this, because god knows a lot of more-informed-people-than-me have been doing that for a long time (see here). What is alarming for me, rather, is what I’m learning about myself while I do it.

To explain what I mean, take a look a this video. Here, Michael Albert is discussing his experiences within one of Venezuela’s communal councils. These councils, of which there are about 30 000, are intended to be the principal organs of popular power. They are rooted in neighborhoods, composed of 200-400 families, and get state funding for democratically decided projects. Among other things, Albert discusses the growth of popular decision making, empowerment of local communities and a staunch sense of independence within the participants.

Can you feel that derision building? I certainly can. Listening to the interview, and reading about these projects more generally, an internal voice-over starts kicking in. It says “it could never happen” “it must be shit really” and, of course “that would never work in reality”. It’s important to stress, it doesn’t matter how credible the source, how thorough the research or how convincing the evidence: my knee-jerk response is that such things are simply utopian nonsense and I should ignore it in favour of being realistic. Do you know what I’m talking about? I’ve started to personify this part of me as some sort of gnomic, Don’t Look Now style Margaret Thatcher-like creature, hence the title.

Growing up in capitalism seems to have created a situation where, for me, the obvious fact that people are a product of their circumstances and social structures – both things which can be altered – pales next a sense that there is some supernatural reason why everything good is doomed to fail. Rationality has given way to a sort of voodoo fatalism.

I guess this is why, for me, the uprisings going on across the globe right now are both amazing and terrifying. It’s great to see so many people expressing such disgust at the structural injustices we’ve all come to see as normal. It’s an ‘event’ – as Badiou would put it – in the sense that it takes place outside of the normal co-ordinates of things: it’s not possible from the perspective of “the end of history” and “there is no alternative”.  This impossibility, however, makes things scary because, well, what if they fail? What if they just send in the troops or people lose interest? What if this is just the last hurrah of popular activism, like the one alluded to in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake?

So, confronted with these conflicting emotions, I get some solace from Badiou’s observation in The Meaning of Sarkozy:

“I define courage then as the virtue displayed by endurance in the impossible. It is not simply a question of encountering the impossible, experiencing it. For then we only have heroism, a moment of heroism. And, at the end of the day, heroism is easier than courage…Courage is distinct from heroism because it is a virtue, and not a moment or a posture. It is a virtue to be constructed. For our part, as materialist of the event and the exception, we have to understand that a virtue is not something that one already has, a kind of disposition, which for example would divide people into the courageous and the cowardly. A virtue is displayed in practices that construct a particular time, regardless of the laws o f the world or the opinions that support these laws. If heroism is the subjective figure of facing up to the impossible, then courage is the virtue of endurance in the impossible. Courage is not the point itself, it is holding on to this point. What demands courage is holding on, in a different duration from that imposed by the law of the world. The raw material of courage is time.” (Alain Badiou, The Meaning of Sarkozy, (2009) pp 72-73)

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