Before the Revolution

This past week saw the two-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. I can remember exactly where I was two years ago, which was teleworking from home on a Saturday in a bid to make a few extra bucks for my upcoming wedding. That day during each work break I would check in on a live-feed being streamed of the day’s events and feel a different kind of energy coming from the activists and anarchists on camera, acquaintances being dramatically arrested, videos uploaded, an online chat room with other curious viewers across the world, a mediated spark to ignite the revolution, a desire to join them that day, but a need to pay off credit card debt and log some more hours. The revolution will not be televised… But it will be live-streamed.

Bernardo Bertolucci made a film in 1964 (when he was only 22!) called Before the Revolution. This is an amazing film that artfully depicts his sympathies with a revolutionary energy that would influence his later films such as 1900 (Italian communism and fascism in the first half of the 20th century) and The Dreamers (Paris, May 1968), but also his abiding concern with privilege and its flirtation with social change.  bertolucci 2Like many of his generation, the revolution was a real and historical process, but also (and perhaps more importantly) a personal and poetic odyssey. In Before the Revolution the protagonist is the young Fabrizio who has been mentored by Cesare, a local teacher and Marxist and Communist educator. Despite his recent revolutionary education Fabrizio’s emotional life is mostly taken with his engagement to the pretty, but boring bourgeois Clelia and a more recent sexual affair with his hot, but unstable aunt Gina. A key scene occurs as preparations are underway for a communist party festival of some sort. Most of the shots depict Fabrizio soliloquizing in motion, walking away from the children with communist placards and flags as his mentor Cesare listens and chimes in every now and then. Fabrizio has lost his passion for the cause:

We must open our eyes. You wanted to change me and I hope you would. Instead I am a rock, I will never change. I wanted to fill Gina with vitality. Instead I filled her with anguish. She once told me slightly ashamed she had “nervous fever”, I have a different fever, a fever that makes me feel nostalgic for the present. While I live I already feel the moments I’m living are far away. Thus I do not want to change the present. I take it as it comes, but my bourgeois future lies in my bourgeois past. For me ideology has been a holiday. A vacation. I thought I was living the years of the revolution and instead I was living the years before the revolution. Because it is always before the revolution when you’re like me.

At the end of this scene Fabrizio’s dialogue falls into a recitation of the Communist Manifesto, and he begins to have a nervous breakdown of a sort, unable to say the words that Cesare has to help him recite:

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions…

I???????????????????n 1964 the Italian Communist Party was an entrenched and historic institution in the world of Italian politics. So much so that most of the revolutionary energy that would accelerate and eventually explode in the Hot Autumn of the last few years of that decade would take place in formations firmly outside of its conservative orbit. This is a world we could hardly relate to in 2011, a world of large, cumbersome, conservative and oppressive “communist” parties intoning about the coming revolution while acting in such a way to prevent that radical break from ever entering the horizon. Indeed, the Fabrizio who is fearful of revolution and abrupt social change probably could have stuck with the PCI or its French counterpart, the PCF, without much psychological stress. Both parties (like most Stalinst parties of the era) worked to keep the workers’ movement permanently “before” the revolution, as in “far away from” the revolution. The moments of true revolutionary energy in Europe in the 60s precipitated and accelerated well out of the parties’ ability to control them, wildcat strikes, student movements. In most cases these parties (which were huge) would eventually flex their muscle and assert their ability to funnel the liberatory event into yet another bureaucratic negotiation with the state and its capitalist counterparts.

Before the Revolution mounts a critique of Italian society on all levels; much of Fabrizio’s malaise comes from his friend’s recent suicide, but it is his nostalgia for the present that can be translated as the paradigmatic existential crisis of the post-war or “baby boom” generation–the desire for a revolution not to forcibly overthrow all existing social conditions but a revolution that reifies and reclaims the “now”. This is a desire for revolution that mostly ignores historical injustice and class politics and instead shifts focus to a psychological realm that ails from a sensation of disconnection, of standing outside oneself, one is never of the event, but perpetually “before” it, “before” the revolution. The solution is to enact the “now” and in so many words “be” the revolution or the anti-revolution, or anything, anything but “before”. Fabrizio’s solution is to submit to a bourgeois identity, get married, which will at least allow him to be alive “now”, to be in the midst of something instead of waiting and agitatedly waiting before an eventuality that may never arrive.

Bertoluccci criticizes Fabrizio’s decision while sympathizing with it and feeling that is indicative of a lost generation uninspired by a “professional” and bloated revolutionary party that is more about festivals and remembering the heroic days against the fascists in the 1940s than remaking the world and addressing the violent capitalistic change Europe underwent in the post-war era. One of the major tendencies of the 1960s revolutionary movements would be an attempt to transform the rupture whenever and wherever it would break out into a remaking of the “now”. Arguing over wage increases, pensions and other bureaucratic and traditionally union strategies simply was not enough to address the massive social and economic forces that were transforming entire industries, modes of living (such as farming) and traditional expectations and concomitant psychological states. This nostalgia for the “now” that Fabrizio confesses to harbor is not just a bourgeois problem that he was born with and is unable to shake off, but a serious critique of a society under totalizing capitalist transformation in which monetized time is always already slipping away. “I don’t have any time” is meant literally. There is no time, so there is no “now”. This is not to take away from the serious dedication and renaissance in revolutionary traditions and worker activism that occurred in the 1960s, but as a cultural phenomenon there was a momentous shift in a personal self-understanding, a need to break with the “before” and “after”, a need to confront a recreated “now”.

Books like Kristin Ross May ’68 and its Afterlives attempt to refocus this history onto the subaltern activists and proletarians whose furor over genocidal militarism and barbarically punitive working conditions formed the impetus and core of 1960s militancy. Similarly, in the US it is the Civil Rights activism over structural racism and this movement’s deep roots and intersection with militant workers that composed the “real” of the revolutionary 1960s in America. But elephant in the room, as Kristin Ross points out and attempts to eschew in her book are the bourgeois activists and future “new philosophers” who usurped the history of the 1960s and perverted the narrative into one of individual transformation.

bertolucci 3What’s amazing is that Bertolucci seemed to have understood this, in a way, back before it all began in 1964. More interested in sex, self-discovery and avoiding a life wasted in a perpetual waiting, an always-before, Fabrizio concedes the match and accepts the bourgeois mantle (although he has been wearing a suit and tie for most of the film)–Fabrizio is the successfully rich baby-boomer with that essential whiff of a radical past before this even became a thing.

Does this have anything to do with Occupy Wall Street? Maybe not, maybe so. Here is Natasha Lennard in Salon describing in an elegant article why she won’t celebrate the Occupy anniversary:

But above all for me, Occupy was about rupture: In the bold and basic act of taking space in New York’s overdetermined grid, we found ourselves, each other and our streets anew. “Whose streets? Our streets!” we would chant. And sometimes — when the police had lost control and we stormed across thoroughfares usually reserved for the constant flows of cars, work and consumption — it was true; the streets were ours.

The emphasis on rupture is interesting here in the need to reinforce the the necessity of breaking the contemporary flows, of seizing or reclaiming the now. But the essay only briefly alludes to the political content of the occupation, which I believe led to its meteoric growth in popularity and the necessity for the state to crush and contain. Later Lennard concludes:

Insofar as Occupy once represented a terrain of possible rupture, it was about not repeating past patterns; it was about not going home (the fact of ad hoc encampments made this clear) but home understood as psycho-geographic location too: We would not return to the old ways of politicking and living, was the thought.

This totalizing rhetoric I believe was quite common among the most devout occupiers and the key to the movement’s biological success, but it skips past the tactical coup which was to draw a class line in the sand– 99% vs. 1% –and situate this anger directly at a vital nexus of global capitalism. What becomes the salient divide is one over an emphasis on pre-figurative politics (which has its theoretical flowering in the 1960s as activists sick and tired of waiting for the revolution decided to become the revolution they desired) and a kind of strategic-traditional politics as program. Lennard:

I have no interest in debate over whether we should have built a program, platform or party. For me and many others, that was never the Occupy we loved or sought. (Call me an anarchist.) Suffice to remember that militarized police forces across the country, and especially in New York, cracked down on Occupy encampments and marches with overwhelming force and regularity.

But it was the concentrated anger over a immorally unequal society that made the occupations so dangerous to the state. The occupations were a geographic and biological form that could focus this anger and let it ferment and threaten a society that actively colludes in the enrichment of a deadly financial/capitalist elite, its retainers and court jesters. A failure to recognize this and reiterate this critical content I think is a strategic mistake.

These paragraphs here may lead one to the conclusion that I’m saying that (as contradictory as it may seem) Fabrizio’s bourgeois malaise and its solution is somehow related to Occupy’s strategy in allowing people to find themselves and their streets anew. Fabrizio does not want to overthrow societal conditions; occupiers like Lennard wanted/want to overthrow every societal condition. Fabrizio gets married in a church and leaves his youthful experimentation with Marxism and incest; contemporary anarchists critique marriage as an oedipal/patriarchal institution. And yet— There is a certain fetish for the *now* in both cases, or at least a recognition that the ceremony of disruption (whether this disruption is rebellious or societally condoned) is necessary to reinvigorate a life that is on the verge of being lost in time. We must reclaim the now through rituals that disrupt the capitalist time machines we have become. And even the most resolute critic of marriage would probably admit to having attended friends’ weddings and the radical rupture that the wedding embodies….I push too far, perhaps, and veer into pseudo-psychoanalysis. T

The prefigurative/political binary is an opposition that should be smashed. It is quite simply the “tragedy” of revolutionary movements if a tragedy is composed of two opposing and unresolvable world-views. I feel a sympathy with prefiguration, as prefiguration in its most basic form is a simple disgust of hypocrisy. If it walks like a duck… Talk left, walk right. Prefiguration prioritizes the material human community and evinces a healthy distrust of language. “But!”–the argument runs–“How can you live this utopia without smashing the state or destroying its political/police apparatus? Have fun in an encampment for a few weeks or running around in the streets for a day or two, but this is hardly going to change the immiserated condition of millions of poor, homeless and hungry and jobless. There is also another “Now” that is not “right now”, but a “Now” that will truly be “Now”, a revolutionary “Now” that will be a perpetual now-horizon, and always-now in which the transformation of our lives and interrelations and living will actually be possible. This will be a true revolution, but your can’t get there by simply declaring that Now is now.” The argument continues, the stychomachia escalates. . . . . .

bertolucci 4

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