Saturday, 16 July 2011

Fukushima: post-politics and after

But the need to take into account all existing tendencies in every concrete situation by no means implies that all are of equal weight when decisions are taken. On the contrary, every situation contains a central problem the solution of which determines both the answer to the other questions raised simultaneously by it and the key to the further development of all social tendencies in the future.

Georg Lukacs, Lenin, A Study in the Unity of His Thought, chapter 6

Talk earlier this year of Egypt’s uprisings as Twitter or Facebook revolutions always had a slightly desperate, State-Department air, an attempt to link technological utopianism to liberal strategies of containment of more old-fashioned kinds transparent in its desperation. As the activists themselves have been quick to remind us, the popular upheavals of Egypt’s unfinished revolution reveal a recognizable social face to the democratic rebellion. If nothing else, the contours of the counter-revolution currently at work (mapped with precision and elegance here), ought now to remind us that, when they did come into play, the new social media mobilized older, and powerful forms of social action: strikes, demonstrations, rallies.

Exalting Twitter over the telephone or carrier pigeon is an example of what Jodi Dean, in her brilliant, delightfully provocative and stimulating Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, describes as the technological fetish:

The power of the technological fetish operates in a similar fashion. A condition of possibility for asserting the immediately progressively political character of something - web-radio or open-source software, say - is a prior exclusion of knowledge of their antagonistic conditions of emergence, their embeddedness within the brutalities of global capitalism, their dependence for existence on systemic violence and nationalized and racialized divisions. Advocating the extension of information and communication technologies accepts and denies these conditions at the same time. (41)

Spend a few moments on the internet and the hold of this fetish becomes apparent. It’s no slight to bloggers more serious and talented than me (and about whom print journalists still write as if web-based prose of quality were some sort of cause for surprise) to note that, as with the printing press or poster before us, communication isn’t what’s at stake, but power and exploitation, class relations. Against claims - from those Dean terms the “typing left” - for more communication, more of the reified processes of democracy, what we need is more contestation.

Japan’s example reminds us that the much-celebrated, de-centralised, rhizomatic, open-ended proliferations of Web 2.0 don’t of themselves serve progressive ends: what else is the success of the right-wing and populist 2-channel (larger currently than Mixi, Japan’s main social networking site) but an instance of older rightisms and new technologies fusing? 2-chan and blogging have re-invigorated channels of communication for Japan’s ultra-right, suffusing political life - via more mainstream publications downstream - with the racisms and hatreds essential for the ultra-right to have a chance of rehabilitating itself. War revisionism, particularly as it challenges the facts of the massacre at Nanking, serves a similar role to that, in Dean’s reading, of the “9-11 Truthers” in the United States. With their combination of certainty and skepticism - whereby the proliferation of theory and speculation via the internet allows one to doubt the evidence of Nanking as thoroughly as one then expresses a wish for murderous war against Chinese and Koreans - the revisionists act as “a clone” of university discourse, “a psychotic clone” (see Dean 151).

Against the energy and unscrupulousness of this right-wing paranoiac refashioning of university discourse, the Japanese left, caught to identity politics’ self-denying ordinance, was limited to ever more exhausted-sounding attempts to retain Article 9, conservative gestures sustaining a clearly undesirable present.

For Dean

“Depoliticised” thus well describes the contemporary left’s inability to raise particular claims to the level of the universal, to present issues or problems as standing for something beyond themselves. The academic and typing left prides itself on just this unwillingness, an unwillingness to say ‘we’ out of reluctance to speak for another as well as an unwillingness to signify or name a problem, to take it out of its immediate context and re-present it as universal. (16)

The significance of the last few months, then, and of the extraordinary public and political response to the disaster at Fukushima, points to directions out of this de-politicised condition, and offers grounds for hope.

A national disaster is, often, managed by the political elite to be an example of a non-political event - what is so inspiring, and astonishing in its success so far, is the intellectual and political courage of those forces in Japan who, in the face of this pressure, politicized the earthquake from the very beginning, and linked mourning and relief work to the question of the nuclear power, right at the moment when this was the most untimely, the most inappropriate, the most inopportune.

For Dean, this is the method of an older radicalism:

A specific crime, issue, or event comes to stand for something more than itself. Rather than a singular problem to be resolved, it indicates a series of problems confronting the system as a whole. It is the syptomal point of antagonism in a given constellation. For example, the civil rights movement in the United States was not about the difficulties facing this or that particular person. It was a movement to change basic social practices, institutions, and regimes of visibility so as to guarantee African Americans basic rights as equal citizens. (14 - 15)

Lukacs, in his study of Lenin, discusses moments being “brought into the open by history”:

the whole is always contained in each link of the chain; that the criterion of true Marxist politics always consists in extracting and concentrating the greatest energy upon those moments in the historical process which- at any given instance or phase – contain within them this relationship to the present whole and to the question of development central for the future – to the future in its practical and tangible totality. Therefore, this energetic seizure of the next decisive link of the chain by no means entails the extraction of its moment from the totality at the expense of the other moments in it. On the contrary, it means that, once related to this central problem, all other moments of the historical process can thereby be correctly understood and solved. The connection of all problems with one another is not loosened by this approach; it is strengthened and made more concrete.

Nuclear power has now become such a link in Japanese politics. The role of TEPCO as a company, the place of the state, the tragic history of nuclear power, bombs, and US occupation have fused in public discussion to create, for the first time in many decades, the chance for a movement to challenge the entire order. Kan has been forced to come out against nuclear power, realizing at the same time how powerless he is to act on the issue. Through every part of the debate, the role of the US presence in the country, and of the place of the atom bomb in Japan’s past and future links to the US imperial project, intensifies and politicizes what might otherwise be a more personal and local question of mourning and reconstruction. As Pierre Rousset observes:

The Japanese crisis is not “sectoral”; it does not concern “only” nuclear energy or “only” social issues. It is a crisis of confidence, a democratic crisis, a legitimacy crisis for the government, a national crisis. It will not be easy for the elites to overcome it. But it is also a crisis without a ready constituted alternative and it will not be easy for the rank and file to give form to a real political alternative.

For the first time in decades activists are able to get a hearing not only about nuclear power, but about the social power it is connected to; the discussions spread to the place of the big companies, the role of corruption in politics and profit-making, the shadow the US presence against all of this.

There was nothing automatic about this crisis, though, and it required conscious interventions to seize on this link. Ryota Sono, from the Precarious Workers General Union, told the Japan Revolutionary Communist League’s Kunitomi Kenji how

For first one week after I called protest action, the number of people who gathered with me in front of TEPCO building every evening were only about 10. But people began to understand more and more that TEPCO hid inconvenient facts for the company that really occurred in the Fukushima nuclear plants. People recognized clearly that they had been deceived by TEPCO. From two weeks after the disastrous earthquake, several hundreds of peoples joined our action and actively protest to TEPCO, shouting no to nuclear plants! They have believed that without people’s action demanding to stop the operation of nuclear plants, another tragic nuclear accident would happen because there are 54 nuclear reactors all around Japan, and many of them are located in seashore site which easily damaged by earthquake and tsunami.

Even as the demonstrations grew in size some of the most significant were relatively small - a few hundred in Tokyo one moment, some thousands weeks later. Ryota Sono’s comment reminds us of the audacity of political action in those first weeks: what was essential, for any sort of intellectual and political clarity to have a chance of developing, was for these interventions to be made ‘prematurely’, at the inappropriate moment, before the official period of ‘depoliticisation’ had come to an end. It is the seemingly indecent spectacle of these first protests that indicates their effectiveness: refusing the official boundaries of the seemly, the timely, the appropriate, conscious intervention played a decisive role. Other groups are now mobilizing in more or less new ways - as mums, as workers, as citizens - drawing on the example of those first union-led interventions. (An observation in passing on George Monbiot’s collapse after Fukushima: his was a response accepting the limits of post-politics at the very moment when political intervention was required).

Socialist Worker’s correspondent:

On May 7, some 5,000 turned out in Tokyo's Shibuya ward, and on June 11, about 20,000 took to the streets. Such mobilizations have already scored some victories--for example, the Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka was fully shut down May 15.

Choi Misun, in Tokyo from Korea to report for Left21, stresses the importance of the earliest rallies:

Assemblies of March 17 were especially meaningful because they took place despite the Japanese government call for "self-restraint of any demonstration" due to the national state of emergency. Some NGOs and unions canceled their mobilization to demonstrate their deference to the government.

An major natural disaster, and a serious and complex technological challenge, ought to be the ideal questions for post-politics to assert itself. Dean quotes (15) Zizek’s claim that post-politics operates

to prevent is precisely this metaphoric universalisation of particular demands: post-politics mobilizes the vast apparatus of experts, social workers and so on, to reduce the overall demand (complaint) of a particular demand to just this demand, with its particular content.

What have the last months been but the “universalisation of particular demands”? Against government bureaucrats, technological - and ‘apolitical’ - expertise, and the weight of recent history and culture, this new protest movement revives possibilities, and futures, long absent from the Japanese political scene.

All this has been achieved so far by a movement with lineaments, like those of Egypt’s, familiar to us from the marches, protests and strikes of earlier social revolts. I’m learning about all of this over the internet, to be sure, and am glad to have the chance to do so. The reign of “communicative capitalism” seems weaker than before. The problems - social and environmental - left behind after the earthquake aren’t going away and, if anything, seem to be getting worse. In breaking the rules of post-politics - politicizing what should stay national, emotional, part of the work of memory - now, though, activists like Ryota Sono are creating the chance to understand the true catastrophe - the metaphoric universalisation whereby the question of nuclear power becomes the question of the contemporary Japanese social formation - and, in that process, they’re changing it.


Jodi Dean, Democracy and other Neo-Liberal Fantasies, Duke UP 2009.

You can see some wonderful photos of the anti-nuclear demonstrations here.