Transgressing to obey, obeying to transgress: On the possibility of revolution in the 21st century

The paradox of an authoritarian social structure is the everyday transgressions that are ubiquitous and common knowledge – the paradox of a permissive, “liberal” society is its impervious-ness to true revolutionary change. It is much harder to rebel when rebellion is expected, even encouraged.

To take a simple, local example: the consumption of alcoholic drinks is legally prohibited in a good Muslim society such as ours. This, of course, does not mean that Bangladeshis do not drink. On the contrary, everyone knows where the booze flows, including (I should add, especially) the government. I suggest here a simple thought experiment – what would happen if, starting tomorrow, the government of Bangladesh started an actual crackdown on booze? No doubt, people would still find ways to smuggle tequila into the country and into their homes, but it would be a decidedly more risky business – amazing profits would await those who would take the risks and succeed, but I expect that such people would be much fewer in number than the number of people who regularly drink today. The genius of an official ban combined with a “don’t ask don’t tell policy” is that everyone is happy – sure, many drink, but most don’t. Those who don’t like the idea of a permissive society can be comforted by the official mantra, those (relatively few) who like their barley with their beef know where and how to get it, and the government does not have to waste the precious time, sweat and money of the state to hunt down a few harmless drunks.

This, according to Zizek, is precisely how authoritarian power functions – no such power structure can survive and reproduce without its inherent, apparently subversive “transgressions”. Zizek takes the example of the old homophobic Yugoslav army which would reek of the homo-erotic undercurrents of barrack life, whether in act or innuendo. The same can be said of the two guys walking down a Dhaka street holding hands (and much more), who would gladly beat an openly gay man to death the same day. The truth of course is that these undercurrents are only apparently so – they are not people testing the boundaries of authority, but slaves of ideology relishing in the ironies that are its lifeblood. Without such everyday, inconsequential transgressions, perhaps, the cold, brutal touch of power would be too close for comfort.

Small transgressions, then, are not only not subversive – they reinforce the power of explicit command. To truly obey, one cannot obey to the letter – it is just as important to internalize the implicit rules that govern when and where to obey and when to transgress. These rules are unspoken, unwritten, but ultimately crucial. Direct prohibitions have their inherent, subliminal injunctions to deviate – the result however is that, so long as the deviations themselves do not deviate from the unsaid rules of deviation, no act of true transgression or subversion is actually performed, and the power structure is not threatened at all. That is precisely why acts of subversion need only take the deviation too far – to be openly radical is indeed a threat, whereas laughing at the king/queen/master-of-the-universe in private is not.

Permissive society turns this structure on its head. Transgression is now explicitly allowed – one is expected to drink and be merry. Indeed, to not transgress is suspect, for why would you not? If transgression ceases to be transgression, then, is obedience subversion? Not quite – refusing to transgress the injunctions of authority in a permissive society is to obey two-fold. Authoritarianism allows the freedom to obey against one’s will, yet why would one obey in a permissive society unless it is truly out of one’s own free will? To shun profligacy, promiscuity and the power of narcotics in a “free” society is to send the signal that one has freely chosen the monastic life. Note also that even here, there are some transgressions that are not allowed. You can smoke marijuana, but not tobacco. Instead of liberation, liberal society simply pushes the power structure deeper, by adding a layer of permissiveness over the same commands and injunctions.

What, then, is true subversion in a society that welcomes it? Or, to put in other words, what is the possibility of personal and political revolution when “anything goes”?

Personally, true subversion is to expose the farce for what it is – by transgressing out of obedience, and obeying to transgress, without ever losing that most important and unnerving of ingredients – irony. To participate in society’s rituals with the knowledge of their inherent arbitrariness, to be both rebel and humble servant, exactly when least expected – thus being neither. To appear to be forced to transgress when obedience is costless, and to be forced to obey when the situation reverses. To be perpetually in battle with the forces that seek not only to control our behaviour, but to control our will and beliefs about our behaviour.

Politically, one must avoid, at all costs, the appearance of the lunatic radical. Obvious revolutionary demands are as meaningless as the inherent transgressions of an authoritarian power structure. They are laughable, implausible, and irrelevant. But to make specific, concrete demands, to ask for slow, incremental change – that has true revolutionary potential. Such demands must be locally or temporally (apparently) idealistic, but always plausible and globally modest. They must tread the gap between the solidly status quo and the cries of the supposedly “far” left.

One must not equate such an approach to the resignation of Fukuyama-esque (un)politics – the idea that liberal capitalist society is the end-point of our eternal quest for the ideal, just form of social organization, leaving room only for gradual, incremental and inherently small adjustments, improvements and appeasements to make the “system” as “humane” as possible. Our approach is not that of resignation, of the acceptance of ultimate defeat. At every point, during every intentionally deceptive maneuver, we must be actively, almost painfully aware of our ultimate destination, as well as of the importance of the deception. And while we must remind ourselves of our destination, we must not get bogged down by the details of the road – there are many roads to the truly free society, and we are better served by focusing on our next footstep, instead of trying (and failing) to know the path stretching in front of us in exact detail, and refusing to walk when we don’t like the nature of the dirt.

The competent establishment is not nearly as afraid of the open radical that it can entertain and ridicule, as it is of the hidden radical that it cannot drag out of the closet. No revolution can be successful in a permissive society if it is seen to be one – the revolution must not be televised.

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