Civilization and revolution. by Gerardo Muñoz

There is something insufficient and risible in the attempt to isolate notions like “revolution” or “emancipation” from the total collapse of the grammar of politics. This insufficiency speaks to a rhetorical inflation which already at the turn of the twentieth century Carlo Michaelsteader identified with the attempt at securing the social bond at all costs. The rhetoric of “saving” (the revolution, emancipation, liberation: saving the subject) at bottom, only shows the simulacra of a redemptive movement of value at the heart of social exchange. And we also know that modern political revolutions were experiments in general socialization. Whether it is Saint-Just appealing to the laws of nature against the positive social contract in the wake of the French Revolution; or Lenin and the Bolsheviks more than a century later in their efforts to stage a utopia of production and classless society, the revolutionary horizon was ultimately about the production of the social bond and little else.

The dialectization between subject and the totality of the modes of production was realized in its reverse: the passage to a new temporal domination unto all sensual activities of life. This was expected given the premise: at the center of the genesis of political organization of the West is not the state, but rather the rhetorical structures of civility. That the last theoretical project of politics hinges on the so-called “rhetorical foundations” of society now comes full circle: the development of civilization in the open.

Of course, revolutionary and emancipatory imagination, except in rare occasions, has always been oblivious to the problem of civilization. And this is why Fordism and high Stalinism were perceived as civilizational projects that mirrored and competed against each other. In this sense, the civilizational rise never escaped the duality between politics and nihilism that is proper to the anxiety over order in the genesis of modern European public powers. This is also why early in revolutionary moments of triumph the excess of barbarism was never left behind, but rather it emerged as its siamese twin of the humanist enterprise. As Merleau-Ponty hinted in his old book Humanism and Terror (1947): “Even though our political life creates a civilization we can never renounce, does it not also cointan a fundamental disease?” [1]. This was Ponty in 1947, where the debris of the war was still in full display in major European cities. To some extent one could imagine not wanting to renounce civilization of such barbarism in the face of atomic disaster. But is this our predicament today? Obviously not, since, precisely the collapse of politics (and its main institutional forms such as positive law and political parties) also amounts to an ongoing crisis that is civilizational in nature.

It is not surprising that what emerges in front of us is a different typology than the one that Merleau-Ponty witnessed in 1947: it is no longer the piling of rubbish, but the rise of metropolitan paradises that organize the infrastructural regime of a contactless world. A decade later, written in the 1950s, Amadeo Bordiga will redefine the stakes of civilization: “…the vigorous coarseness of the barbarian peoples was less dire than the decadence of the masses in the capitalist epoch, the epoch that our enemies name as civilization – a word used well here, and in its proper sense, because it means the urban way of life, the way of life proper to the great amalgamated monsters of the bourgeois metropolises” [2]. Bordiga’s lucidity was capable of grasping that Fordism as the triumph of the utopia of capital now meant that civilization (now reduced as the allocation of exchange and distribution) became the central figure of nihilism. Perhaps Bordiga was too imprudent to call for the shadow of the civilized – that is, the barbarian – but his problem, I take it, is still ours to reflect upon.




1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Humanism and Terror (Beacon Press, 1969), xxxviii.

2. Amadeo Bordiga, “Specie umana e crosta terrestre”, in Drammi gialli e sinistre della moderna decadenza sociale (Iskra, 1978), 95. My translation. 

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