It’s interesting that there’s so little discussion of what it means to believe in the necessity of liberation, how people can come to believe it, and what role that kind of agency has in social transformation. The cognitive and ethical component of motivation is noticeably absent in contemporary discussions of strategy and methods for getting us closer to liberation. The two main approaches that are most popular prioritize strategies and tactics that can bring victory and the view that objective context and events either guarantee victory or open the possibility for victory.
Readings of important revolutionary experiences usually are taken apart using those approaches. Key figures or groups failed to take some strategy or tactic, the backwardness of the economy held back the process, isolation internationally made moving forward difficult, etc. For example in Occupy there are frequent references to facts about demographics, methods of publicizing, the demands, organization, the context of the economy, etc. There’s surprisingly little discussion of what Americans were actually thinking, believing, and wishing during that time. During the Spanish revolution there’s a similar gap. I’ve yet to find a real exploration of why it was that the Spanish people themselves didn’t rise up against the CNT and UGT leaders betrayals, but instead went along with decisions they disagreed with.
My hunch is that there’s an unconscious consensus that consciously revolutionary movement is off the table, and that some combination of the right moves and right situation is sufficient to deliver a new society. Part of this comes from belief in the inevitable collapse of capitalism and guaranteed victory of socialism. Likely another component is the belief that under the right leadership conversions would follow assuredly.
We need a different orientation. There are gaps between liberatory values and aspirations and the dominant ones. Active revolutionary thought has a role to play in making liberation approachable, and within that values that run counter to dominant social order are crucial to be motivated to take on revolutionary action. Recognizing this and really going deep into how we can get to new forms of liberatory subjectivities is key to any new politics.
Reflecting on anti-social violence and the history of repression has brought up a theme I’ve been thinking through in the past couple years. This draft is a placeholder for me to develop this further. A core feature of anarchist thinking is a critique of the State as a particular institution and structuring aspect of society. The logic and form of the state carry with them inherent repressive functions to society as a whole. Though an important insight, this picture is incomplete and even distorting if taken alone.
For one thing, the state itself doesn’t rely solely on its force to impose its repressive capabilities. Relatively little of the state’s brutal legacy is dolled out day-to-day by its police and military. Even beyond paramilitary forces acting in coordinated autonomy with the state, we ourselves enforce, impose, and reproduce repressive functions of the state amongst ourselves. We internalize and express statist relationships in our schools, workplaces, and homes. It isn’t that the state relies on this, but in fact it is built upon it. The fact that we affirm and reproduce the power of the state makes things like the police and military possible, because they would be unable to govern without our participation.
But the anarchist critique has a deeper and more important insight. The critique of repressive power for lack of a better term goes beyond the state itself, and gives us a way of understanding the state as an emergent product of statist social relations. Likewise repressive acts are emergent. They can emerge from decentralized social networks just as from hierarchical ones. Ethnic cleansing gives copious examples of the state being able to produce such events without always needing to directly carrying them out. It isn’t only the state that can produce such events; reactionary and repressive potentials exist throughout society and can emerge in the right conditions in a variety of situations. Reaction is more than a question of structure or tactics, but one of emergence and subjectivity.
Specifically subjectivity or the cognition of political actors is the growth of reaction (and liberatory action). As societies reproduce their organization and forces, these are mediated through the motivational values, beliefs, and ideas of their actors. Those mental states, conscious and unconscious, are themselves emergently adapting just as they are acting upon and changing their world. This process becomes naked when workers refuse to scab on another ethnicity in spontaneous solidarity without ever having met, or when men burn school buses with women students inside in reaction to advances for women in the universities.
Often the tools people use to understand political events come down to structure and strategy, obviously important matters. Still, strangely missing is an understanding of the perspective of political actors and how people come to be bloody thirsty genocidal maniacs or liberating militants in search of the general good. Viewed through the prism of emergence, that kind of agency can be traced through a more general functioning of society. With it comes a profound critique power that weaves together a fundamentally corrupt society and points to an understanding of how transformation is possible. Our agency and cognition are central to the evolution of political events. They facilitate, impede, and mediate the emergence of societies trajectory.
I found a few things from Benjamin’s On the Concept of History while working on my drafts about time and it’s connection to cognition, agency, events, and emergence. The most interesting part for me though was a brief detour in his elaboration of historical progression and struggle. In a simple single paragraph Benjamin connects revolutionary events with time and history.
“The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action. The great revolution introduced a new calendar. The initial day of a calendar serves as a historical time-lapse camera. And, basically, it is the same day that keeps recurring in the guise of holidays, which are days of remembrance. Thus the calendars do no measure time as clocks do; they are monuments of a historical consciousness of which not the slightest trace has been apparent in Europe in the past hundred years. In the July revolution an incident occurred which showed this consciousness still alive. On the first evening of fighting it turned out that the clocks in towers were being fired on simultaneously and independently from several places in Paris.” 
There’s a few elements here that parallel my own thinking around political struggle and time. He connects awareness, events, and the social construction of time. Part of coming to action is a sense of what remains the same and what is changing. Agents exist in the present, and view the political equilibrium of their situation as part of different continuities and changes. Alongside this experiential time and construction of identities and differences across time is socially shared time. Time in society is constructed in part by the political and economic structures of society. So the railroads brought a kind of universal time that was once relative to the geography of different places (sunlight). Capitalism more broadly rearranged the relationship between the day and time, and with it’s time studies, surveillance, and workday globally revised how people relate to their nights and days, and their experience of the passage of time. Those different frames of time are not well explored as political categories. Still less in their relationship to thought and action.
Benjamin, Walter. On the Concept of History. http://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html