William Connolly, a distinguished Professor of Political Theory from Johns Hopkins spoke at Cornell on Friday. He has previously deplored the power of what he calls the evangelical neoliberal resonance machine on our politics. And he has hoped for a militant democracy in response. One way of looking at his talk would be that it answered the question whether a militant democracy (Connolly hopes for mass strikes around the world) is even possible.
To put it in my words, Connolly elegantly argued that the historical political process is contingent, and frequently unpredictable, but bounded. He pointed to similar aspects in the physical sciences, and argued that human scientists have much to learn from the discussions of unpredictability and creativity in the physical sciences. It is not surprising that our “scientists” and seers did not predict, as Connolly argues, “The rebellions in Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rapid rise of neoliberal capitalism in Eastern Europe, Tiannamen Square, the birth of gay rights movements in the United States and Europe, the formation of the evangelical-neoliberal resonance machine in the United States, the claim to a right of doctor assisted suicide in a world in which many thought the list of human rights was complete, the (nearly) worldwide economic meltdown, the rebellion in Iran, the popular transformations in Tunisia and Egypt, the birth of a civil war in Libya, the eruption of protests in Wisconsin, the earthquake, Tsunami, nuclear crisis in Japan . . .” See Connolly on the Politics of the event here.
There was much more in Connolly’s talk particularly ruminations about the effect of political events, the role of creativity and about the fragility of social and physical systems particularly the environment, and about militant democracy.
From my perspective, I take away two comments. Given the unpredictability of whether an effective revolution will come about, is not the form of the revolution also unpredictable? Sid Tarrow’s Power in Movement book about the nature of social movements traces many of the creative approaches such movements take. If neoliberalism is overthrown, mass strikes may or may not play a role. But I did not understand Connolly’s claim to be one of prediction, but of a hoped-for scenario. He is suggesting that any such revolution could not be isolated to a single country though it could start in one. And he might hope for mass strikes on the wish that a revolution be as bloodless as possible.
Second, Connolly’s development of the many factors (too rich to explore here) that make revolutionary change possible including many changes not as attractive as militant democracy, enliven my hope in the possibility that neoliberalism will ultimately prove to be a temporary power. In addition, to the many examples discussed by Connolly (including events and beyond), I would add one mentioned in Terry Eagleton’s refreshing and accessible Why Marx Was Right. If you doubt the possibility of significant change, you don’t know the difference between burning witches and equal pay for women.