By Peter Thompson

So what is going on? Since the start of the Arab spring in Tunisia we have seen revolutionary events flicker into life around the world. This week in both Turkey and Brazil it is, in the words of Paul Mason, all kicking off again. But what is the nature of this series of events? We have seen pictures from Taksim square, modelled quite clearly on 1789. Or maybe it is a new 1848, in which liberalism triumphed over almost all the old despotic regimes in Europe? Or is it our 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, this time with political and social collapse engendered by private rather than state indebtedness?

But how do revolutions happen? What is the precise mechanism between dissatisfaction and overthrow? This is where you need Hegel and the dialectic. In the past week I have heard talk of various modes of change. There has been the balloon which you gradually filled with water until it bursts, but you cannot predict where the weak point is that will lead to bursting. I have also heard of the Jenga theory of evolution and species collapse, where bricks are gradually removed from the pile until generalised instability leads to the collapse of the tower.

These are both great metaphors but Hegel got their first when he talked about the dialectic of quantity into quality. By this he meant that there is a constant interaction between objective trends and tendencies which will have their contingent outcomes and sooner or later these contingent outcomes add up to a qualitative change. If we think of the individual contingent events that go on to make up a revolution as the individual blocks in a game of Jenga than at first they can be removed fairly easily and the tower remains upright.

This model has been used to describe the way that individual species collapse and the effect that that has on the global environment as a whole. But, without wishing to sound too much like Engels in reverse, this model of species collapse can also be applied as a model of the collapse of authority. One protest here, one there can be managed but once people are rising up from Tunisia to Brasilia then something is qualitatively and perceptibly shifting.

But there is another dialectic of quantity into quality which has been going on since the mid-1970s and that is the gradual pulling away of the blocks of social solidarity as part of the neoliberal agenda to privatise the world. It didn’t start with Mrs Thatcher but it can probably be traced back to her friend General Pinochet and his military coup against the Allende government in Chile with the express support of ITT and the other global corporations. The global corporations were happy to see the removal of Allende as the first block in the attack on the post-war social settlement. This creeping global neoliberal coup has been so successful that in many ways we have not noticed that the very way that we think has changed. Even our dreams and hopes have been privatised and sold back to us in the form of a consumer paradise we can’t afford in the place of a social settlement which we can’t afford to do without.

Heidegger coined a word for this process: Verwindung. It means the silent and unnoticed distortion of something until its shape has eventually changed beyond recognition. Again, Hegel talks about the way in which by the time you notice the smell of perfume that has been released into a room, it has already captured that room and changed its atmosphere. What goes for perfume also goes for teargas.

The creeping Verwindung of the world into a neoliberal utopia has now been noticed. So many blocks have been removed from the tower of social solidarity that it is starting to wobble, not uncontrollably yet, but it is only a question of how many more blocks can be removed. The dialectical interaction between economic transformation and political reevaluation has reached one of those turning points that it did in 1789, 1848 and 1989. What is required is another good Hegelian term; namely the negation of the negation. The mass uprisings going on around the world are the first steps in the social negation of the negation of the social. What is required now is a new Verwindung. This time an active one in which the world is changed, as Ernst Bloch put it, into all recognition.

Peter Thompson is director of the Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies at the University of Sheffield. You can find more information about the author here.
Peter is also the author of Ernst Blog, where you can read the original version of this essay.

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Peter Thompson

Peter Thompson

Peter Thompson has been teaching at the University of Sheffield since 1990. His research interests include the post-war history of the GDR and German unification, but his main area of research is in the field of Ernst Bloch studies, encompassing not only his period in the GDR from 1949 to 1961 – when he was Professor of Philosophy at Leipzig University and centrally involved in oppositional Marxist activities of the Harich-Gruppe of the mid 1950s – but also in the philosophical impact of his theories of “Concrete Utopia” and the central role of hope in social transformation. Peter is also the Director of The Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies, which was established at Sheffield in 2008.
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